There are many benefits to sharing office space as a lawyer, like increased cost savings and a more sociable workplace. But without the proper risk management precautions, the blurred boundaries of a shared office put you at greater risk of legal malpractice claims. To protect your reputation and your law firm, it’s important to acknowledge risks and mitigate your exposure.
Here are four key factors to keep in mind before you sign a new lease or take on a new officemate.
Consider the Client’s Perspective
As an attorney, you have a clear understanding that your law office is a separate business entity from that of the attorney next door. However, sharing office space could lead a prospective or current client to become confused as to who is representing them. Importantly, it’s the client’s understanding and perspective that will matter in a claim of legal malpractice.
When assessing the image being presented to prospective clients, consider what they see and experience when dealing with attorneys in the shared office space:
- Are advertisements in compliance with ABA Model Rules concerning lawyer’s services?
- Do consumer web directories clarify which attorneys make up a law firm?
- Does your firm’s website list the attorneys in practice?
- Is the phone answered with a generic identification, such as “Law Firm”? or with a specific designation, such as “Law Offices of Jane Smith?”
- Do lobby and office signage clarify that separate law offices share the space?
- Does your engagement agreement clearly document the terms of representation?
Know the Applicable Model Rules
It’s important to remain aware of the relevant Rules of Professional Conduct in an office sharing environment. Because of the blurred lines of the physical space, it’s easier for an attorney to create a conflict of interest or even violate ethical rules.
Model Rules 1.2 and 1.6 are key when it comes to unauthorized discussions of a client’s case with an unaffiliated officemate:
- ABA Model Rule 1.2 applies where “a lawyer may take only such action as the client impliedly authorizes, and the client must give informed consent for any limitation on the scope of that attorney’s representation.”
- Model Rule 1.6 applies where “a lawyer generally may not reveal information about the representation without the client’s consent, and the lawyer must take reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent disclosure.”
By seeking advice from a neighboring lawyer, an attorney is risking a lot of problems. Casually advising on another firm’s client or chatting up a client informally in a waiting area while the client’s attorney is out of the room may also create heightened risk. Consider these Model Rules:
- Rule 1.7–1.9—Conflict of interest rules pertaining to current and former clients
- Rule 1.10—When lawyers are, or appear to be, holding themselves out as being associated in a firm
- Rule 1.18—Imposing various duties on lawyers with respect to possible or prospective clients
- Rule 4.2—Knowingly communicate with another lawyer’s client about the subject of representation without the lawyer’s consent
- Rule 5.3—Concerning responsibilities regarding nonlawyer assistance
Perform Due Diligence Before Sharing Office Space
Just as an attorney would research a prospective client or prospective partner, a prospective renter should gather as much information as possible to determine if the office environment imposes unusual or unanticipated risks or burdens on the attorney’s ability to practice law.
- Do the other law tenants appreciate the need to keep their practices separate and distinct?
- Do they avoid the appearance of providing legal advice to non-clients?
- Does the office space have a good reputation?
- Is there a history of grievances or legal malpractice cases?
- Do other attorney tenants have legal malpractice insurance?
- What are the office’s procedures for physical and IT security?
Ensure Client Confidentiality
Confidentiality is critical to every attorney-client relationship, but there is a higher risk of exposure in shared office space. Shared workspaces impose additional challenges, including those related to:
- Storage of physical client documents and other materials
- Access to personal attorney work spaces
- Secure storage of the firm’s financial and medical information
- Support staff and vendor services shared across tenants
- Secure storage of clients’ electronic data
Considering that many office sharing spaces offer shared IT services, this is also an area in which to do your due diligence and ensure the technical facilities are up to the task of ensuring legal confidentiality:
- Do officemates share common computer servers or administrative systems?
- How are each tenant’s client data kept separately confidential, secure and backed up?
- Does the office space provide a single WiFi system that is adequately secured?
- Does the office provide ethernet that is secured against intrusion?
- What systems are in place to prevent shared staff from unauthorized access to client records?
- Is a higher standard of security available to protect special kinds of data, such as clients’ medical or financial records?
Managing the Risks Sharing Office Space
Sharing office space provides many benefits to small firms and solo practitioners interested in lowering the costs of running a law firm. But attorneys must avoid blurring boundaries that could lead to a legal malpractice claim. Ensure the client’s perspective stays top of mind, review your jurisdiction’s ethical rules, perform your due diligence and ensure client confidentiality. A cooperative and proactive approach early on helps ensure a shared office environment is productive and minimizes the risk of claims.