Many lawyers share office space with other lawyers. Sharing office space has many benefits. These benefits include lower costs, networking opportunities, and unique educational opportunities.
Sharing office space, however, can be an occupational hazard. Lawyers sharing office space run the risk that clients, the public, or the Office of Disciplinary Counsel might perceive the lawyers to be associated in a law firm. Being associated with other lawyers in a “firm” has significant consequences for purposes of imputation of conflicts, supervisory responsibilities, and malpractice liability, to name but a few issues. See La. Rules of Pro’f Conduct r. 1.10(a); see also Rules of Prof’l Conduct, r. 1.0(c).
Office sharing lawyers must maintain their professional independence and avoid inadvertent disclosure of client confidential information. Here are some tips to avoiding discipline and vicarious liability when sharing office space with other lawyers:
- Structure and manage the office space in a way that restricts access to each lawyer’s confidential information. Lawyers should have individual and secure office space to meet clients and to discuss confidential matters.
- Lawyers storing physical files in the shared office space should keep files in their individual secure offices.
- As to electronically stored information, lawyers should password protect the information and should not share the passwords. Also, lawyers should consider obtaining individual printers to avoid inadvertent disclosure of confidential client information.
- Office sharing lawyers should have their own separate letterheads, business cards, email addresses, password protected computers, malpractice insurance, and engagement agreements.
- Lawyers should avoid sharing staff, receptionists, and paralegals. But if the lawyers choose to share a receptionist, for example, the receptionist should answer any common telephone line with a generic greeting of “good morning, law office.” The receptionist should route phone calls to each lawyer’s individual password protected voicemail box. Finally, the receptionist should not take confidential information from clients.
- Office sharing lawyers should implement measures to maintain legal and financial independence. All lawyers should practice under separate legal entities. The lawyers should separately own office equipment such as copy machines and printers. The lawyers should separately pay the expenses such as rent. The lawyers should keep their finances separate. The lawyers should maintain separate trust and operating accounts.
- Finally, lawyers must adopt measures to ensure that the public is not left with the impression that a law firm exists when none does. For example, lawyers should not use signage with all of the lawyers’ names grouped together. Lawyers can also post a disclaimer in the lobby notifying clients and the public that the lawyers are independent law practitioners and are not associated a single law firm.