I am interested in opening a second office in an adjoining community, but I really just want to share office space with other professionals and meet clients at that location. Is this allowable under the Rules of Professional Conduct?
Opening an office in a second community is often used as a means of expanding one’s law practice. There are some concerns that need to be addressed when opening a second office, especially if the lawyer plans to share the office with other professionals, whether lawyers or nonlawyers. Ethics Opinion E00-02, issued by the State Bar Committee on Professional Ethics, summarizes these concerns for Wisconsin lawyers.
A primary concern when sharing office space with other professionals is taking the appropriate steps to ensure client confidentiality. Client confidentiality applies to everything related to the representation. It is suggested that even the fact that a potential client is considering meeting with an attorney is confidential information, which means that the scheduling of a meeting at the office location needs to be kept confidential and protected from disclosure to other professionals. Even the act of contacting an attorney could create risk for a client, so the lawyer needs to take precautions in those instances where confidentiality is a critical part of the process of commencing a representation. Thus, lawyers need to ensure that the identity of clients is kept confidential, using special care in situations when the lawyer is meeting with a potential client in an office space shared with individuals who are not members of the lawyer’s firm.
Lawyers certainly are allowed to maintain more than one office and have those additional offices available for meetings with potential clients, but doing so requires that the lawyer maintain a law practice in each community in which he or she has an office even if the lawyer plans to spend time in a particular community on an appointment-only basis. Lawyers must be careful when describing their law practices to ensure they are not misrepresenting their practice or the type of practice they are engaged in. A misrepresentation would constitute a violation of SCR 20:7.1 of the Wisconsin Rules of Professional Conduct. Thus, lawyers must be careful what types of office arrangements they enter into when establishing multiple offices for engaging in the practice of law.
The Michigan State Bar Committee on Professional and Judicial Ethics recently issued an ethics opinion in which it held that a lawyer could not use a location procured with a short-term, flexible rental arrangement as an alternative law office when the location was also used by nonlawyers. The committee held that Michigan lawyers must have a dedicated office space that is separate from other business operations, if their intent is to maintain the physical location as a law office and if they notify the public that the space is being used as a law office. The committee recognized that lawyers can meet with clients in places other than a regular permanent office, but in this situation, the lawyer was renting a second office within a suite shared with nonlawyers and not staffed during normal business hours. The lawyer and the other tenants rented individual rooms on a short-term basis.
Need Ethics Advice?
As a State Bar member, you have access to informal guidance and help in resolving questions regarding Wisconsin’s Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys.
Ethics Hotline. To informally discuss an ethics question, contact the State Bar ethics counsel, Timothy Pierce. He can be reached at (608) 250-6168 or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6168, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m to 4 p.m.
The principal concern in this instance was the rental of the space with nonlawyers, because of the possible implication that the lawyer was engaged in a business with the nonlawyers, a business arrangement prohibited under Rule 5.4 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Using this type of arrangement to rent office space with other lawyers would be treated differently under the rules, but it would still be important for the lawyer to make clear to the public that the lawyer was not engaged in the practice of law with the other lawyers in some sort of partnership or fee-sharing arrangement.