Many lawyers, especially solo practitioners, find it advantageous to share office space with others—either lawyers or individuals not engaged in the law business. Overhead expenses, such as receptionists, meeting rooms, libraries, copy machines, etc. can be reduced if these expenses are shared with others.
There are ethics considerations for lawyers who choose to "office share" with others. Although office sharing is not prohibited under ethics rules, considerable care must be exercised to avoid ethics problems.
When sharing office space with another lawyer, a lawyer must diligently protect the independence of the practices. Each firm should have its own telephone line and the phones may not be answered as "Lawyer A and B" when the two lawyers are not actually practicing together. CI-1045, CI-1047 and MRPC 7.1. Lawyers having separate businesses may not use joint letterhead and the signs outside the building should also not lead potential clients to believe that the lawyers are practicing together in an association. CI-1179.
Unassociated office sharers must have procedures in place to ensure compliance with ethics rules. First, lawyers should take affirmative steps to preserve the confidences and secrets of clients. MRPC 1.6. Confidential files of one lawyer may not be accessible by other office sharers, and must be securely stored to maintain all confidences. This usually involves locking the files when the lawyer is not present in the office.
Second, the lawyer must accurately communicate the lawyer's status. No advertisement, sign or telephone should be established in any way that would lead a potential client to believe that the lawyer is in a partnership, is "associated," or is "affiliated" with the other lawyer(s) sharing office space.
Third, the lawyer should make sure that there is no improper solicitation of clients or referrals of business to or from other independent occupants of the office. MRPC 7.2(c) and 7.3. A lawyer must also take care to exercise independent professional judgment regarding the legal representation and not be influenced by the office sharing status. MRPC 5.4(c).
Unassociated lawyers who share office space are also faced with issues of disqualification and conflict of interest when dealing with clients whose adversaries are represented by another office sharer. As long as office sharers are truly independent entities and all confidences and secrets are protected, there is no per se conflict of interest by sharing office space. MRPC 1.7, 1.9 and 1.10(a). However, if the unassociated lawyers regularly "cover" for each other or if they frequently appear as co-counsel, conflict of interest disqualification may be unavoidable.
In RI-249, three lawyers were practicing separately under their individual names, but shared office space, the services of a receptionist, a fax line and secretaries. They maintained separate telephone numbers. The Ethics Committee opined that the sharing of a fax line may compromise confidentiality and found that practice to be unethical. With that modification, however, the committee opined that when one office sharer has a conflict of interest prohibiting representation of a private client, the conflict is not per se imputed to other office sharers.
If a lawyer is ultimately disqualified from acting as trial counsel for a client, another lawyer who is an office sharer with the original attorney is not disqualified from acting as subsequent counsel, provided that the new counsel is not independently disqualified from acting as counsel under MRPC 1.7 or 1.9. See RI-299.
Although even more problematic, lawyers are not ethically prohibited from sharing office space with a nonlaw business. In that situation, issues of confidentiality are even more troublesome. In addition to the separation of files, extra care must be taken to convey to the public that the law business is not affiliated with the nonlaw business in any way. For example, a conference room used by the nonlaw business should not also be the law library for the lawyer. See RI-118. File retention procedures should also be firmly in place to avoid the possibility that individuals associated with the nonlaw business would have any access to law files.
In some cases, a lawyer may share space with the lawyer's own nonlaw business. For example, a lawyer may also operate as a licensed real estate agent or may operate an insurance business. A lawyer may share office space with the lawyer's nonlaw business, as long as the businesses are segregated, client confidences are protected, and public communications about each business entity are clear and do not create unjustified expectations about the results which can be achieved. See RI-135. The same conditions, if in place, would also allow a lawyer to share office space with a nonlaw business operated by the lawyer's spouse. RI-206.
A lawyer also engaged in another occupation must take care not to allow the representation of the lawyer's clients to be materially limited by the lawyer's nonlegal business interests. See MRPC 1.7(b) and RI-135. When a lawyer also operates a nonlaw business at the same office site, the risk of a claim for an improper "referral" to the nonlaw business increases.
Therefore, lawyers who decide to share office space with other lawyers or nonlaw businesses must carefully consider the ethics requirements for doing so. As long as ethical guidelines are adhered to, however, office sharing arrangements can be both ethical and cost effective.