May I Share Office Space with Nonlawyers?

Shared CubiclesTechnological improvements have allowed lawyers to practice in nontraditional settings. From homes to beaches to shared office suites, lawyers can get more and more work done without secretaries, dictaphones and law libraries. As to shared office suites, choices in Louisiana are ever increasing (Regus Virtual Office and LaunchPad are just two examples).

What ethical issues arise when lawyers take advantage of shared office space? The Louisiana State Bar Association Rules of Professional Conduct Committee addressed these issues in a public advisory opinion entitled “Sharing Office Space with Non-Lawyers.” The take away is this: lawyers may share office space with nonlawyers, but must (1) assure confidentiality, professional independence, and (2) must avoid assisting in the unauthorized practice of law, avoid improper business transactions with clients and avoid solicitation and paid referrals.

As to confidentiality, a lawyer must avoid disclosure of confidential information at “leak points” such as shared printers, copiers and fax machines. Lawyers should avoid using shared paper file storage areas (they should probably avoid paper file storage). Lawyers should use great care employing, and then must adequately train, any support staff as to handling confidential information. See Louisiana Rule 5.3.

As to professional independence, a lawyer who exchanges legal services for “free” office space must avoid providing “free” legal services to clients of the landlord/lessor, and must not allow the landlord/lessor to offer “included” legal services to other tenants. Also, the lawyer must not take client- or case-related instructions from the lawyer’s landlord/lessor. This conduct also could be construed as assisting the unauthorized practice of law.

As to solicitation and paid referrals, a lawyer must not offer services in-person to other tenants. Moreover, a lawyer must not “kick back” some portion of fees received from clients referred by the landlord/lessor or co-tenants in the space.

Finally, as to engaging in business transactions with clients, a lawyer must be mindful that there are particular hoops through which the lawyer must jump if the lawyer decides to engage in business transactions with any co-tenants or with the landlord/lessor who are also the lawyer’s clients. See Louisiana Rule 1.8(a). The term “business transactions” could include loans, service exchanges or partnerships, among other transactions.

Assuming the lawyer is mindful of these issues, office sharing with nonlawyers is permissible.