Sharing office space is a good option for some lawyers. It provides professional companionship while allowing them to pool rent and resources. But the arrangement can be confusing to clients. They may think the lawyers are practicing together in an actual firm. This creates the risk of one lawyer being sued for the mistakes of another. Problems can be avoided by taking some basic risk management steps.
Share Space, Not Liability
If you share space with other lawyers, it is important to make sure clients understand you are not in a firm with your office mates. It’s your responsibility to communicate this. You should also insist that your office mates tell their clients as well. Otherwise, you might find yourself sharing liability for their mistakes.
A starting point is to formally document your space-sharing arrangement with your office mates. Your agreement should include internal safeguards and procedures to keep client information confidential.
Alta Pro Practice Pointers
- Don’t share advertising and marketing. Each firm should have its own marketing materials and messaging. Each lawyer should have separate business cards.
- Don’t share a website. Each lawyer should have a separate website and URL. Using the same website increases the chance that a potential client will think you are a single firm.
- Your engagement letters and fee agreements should make your separate status clear. All lawyers should use the same or substantially similar language in their agreements. If a lawyer won’t do this, don’t share an office.
- Clarify referral and fee arrangements. If you have a client-referral or fee-sharing relationship with lawyers in your office, let clients know. Explain the relationship in writing. Spell out each lawyer’s responsibility for the case.
- Don’t share an IT system. You are ethically required to protect client information and property. This includes digital data. Each individual lawyer should have their own systems for doing so.
- Maintain boundaries. Lawyers should have separate file rooms and work areas. Client files should not be mingled in libraries, basements, file cabinets or closets.
- Be careful about sharing employees. When two or more lawyers use the same employee, there is a danger that client confidences will be disclosed. In addition, the client may be confused as to which attorney is working on their case. Receptionists, office managers and assistants should only work on client matters after full disclosure to the client, and after appropriate conflict checks and waivers have been done.
- Report problems. You have an affirmative duty to report ethics violations by other lawyers in your office – even if you’re not formally practicing with them. Failure to do so can get you in disciplinary trouble.
- Enforce your office sharing guidelines. Designate at least one person in the office to manage office issues and shared resources, and to make sure the rules are followed.
The Bottom Line: If you’re not a law firm, don’t give the impression that you are. Don’t risk having to pay for another lawyer’s malpractice.
This information is intended for informative purposes for members of Alta Pro Lawyers Risk Purchasing Group. It is not intended as legal advice. Lawyers should always refer to local and state rules and statutes for applicable standards and rules. These guidelines are designed to help lawyers avoid professional liability claims and are not intended for any other purpose. No legal or fiduciary relationship is intended to be created by receipt of this material.
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