Management Assistance Program
The Ethics of Office Sharing Arrangements
By Jim Calloway
Office Sharing Arrangements with Other Lawyers was the subject of American Bar Association Formal Opinion 507, released July 12, 2023.
The opinion “addresses some minimum ethical requirements and suggested practices arising in the office sharing context, particularly in the areas of confidentiality, conflicts of interest, supervision, and communications concerning a lawyer’s services.” It notes that when lawyers in an office sharing arrangement share support staff, such as receptionists, administrative assistants and paralegals, maintaining confidentiality of client information is “tested.”
But some practical advice is omitted. The opinion notes that lawyers in an office sharing arrangement should use separate business cards, letterhead, directory listings, office signs, and advertisements describing their distinct practices. But it fails to mention one important safeguard. In my view, every lawyer in such an arrangement should be contractually obligated to the other lawyers to have a written contract with every client and to include disclosure about the office sharing arrangement and that only the lawyer signing the contract is responsible to the client. Perhaps the client even initials that provision.
Learn to use the term “officemate” rather than partner or associate when discussing the other lawyers.
The opinion notes it is natural for lawyers in office sharing arrangements to informally consult one another about their respective client matters and it gives guidance in that area.
“It is desirable for lawyers sharing office space to have separate telephone lines, but a receptionist may answer a common telephone line with a generic salutation such as ‘Law Offices’ to avoid implying that the lawyers are practicing together in the same firm,” according to the opinion.
I think it is important for lawyers to have different phone numbers, more because of the practical considerations than the ethical ones. If there is a need to terminate the sharing arrangement, the dispute over who gets the jointly-purchased phone number can be a huge issue. It also prevents one lawyer paying for marketing efforts that inadvertently benefit the other lawyers. Separate websites are often the best policy for the same reason.
The problems with lawyers representing clients with adverse interests are numerous, especially if the office has only one waiting room. It may make sense to consider not taking clients when another attorney in the office represents the opposing party. That policy should be in writing. But there will be challenges. At some point, Lawyer A will sign up a new divorce client on Monday and Lawyer B will be prohibited from agreeing to represent the opposing party on Tuesday, even if that potential client is the lawyer’s best friend from high school. In fact, Lawyer B should not even meet with the client on Tuesday. So, some process to track these conflicts must exist even though it is office sharing and not a law firm.
If you are in an office sharing arrangement, read this opinion and share it with your officemates.
Originally posted in Oklahoma Bar Association’s Courts and More, July 19, 2023.