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June 12 — New York lawyers may use the street address of a “virtual law office” as their principal law office address even if they work primarily from another location, according to a June opinion from the New York City bar's ethics committee (New York City Bar Ass'n Comm. on Professional Ethics, Op. 2014-2, 6/14).
It's not inherently misleading for lawyers to display this street address on their law firm website, business cards and letterhead, the committee advised.
The opinion defines a virtual law office or VLO as a physical New York location that provides lawyers with business services and facilities such as work space, conference rooms, telephones, printers and mail receipt.
“[W]e should not create obstacles to the use of VLOs as long as the interests of clients, the courts, and the legal system are protected.”
New York City Ethics Op. 2014-2
The committee concluded that a VLO can meet the requirement in Rule 7.1(f) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct that a lawyer's advertisements must include the “principal law office address” of the lawyer or law firm whose services are being offered.
This conclusion, the panel said, is consistent with the policies underlying the rule: facilitating a prospective client's informed selection of a lawyer; maintaining a place for meetings, contact and service of legal papers; and not misleading the public.
The committee found indications in a recent Second Circuit decision that New York lawyers need not have a traditional office to maintain appropriate levels of accessibility and communication with clients. See Schoenefeld v. New York, 2014 BL 97304, No. 11-4283-cv, 30 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 236 (2d Cir. April 8, 2014), which certified to New York's high court the question of what satisfies the mandate in Section 470 of New York's Judiciary Law that lawyers must maintain an in-state office.
The panel also said that “economic conditions in the legal world and technological developments persuade us that we should not create obstacles to the use of VLOs as long as the interests of clients, the courts, and the legal system are protected.”
Courts and disciplinary authorities increasingly recognize that the conditions of modern law practice justify flexibility in practice arrangements, the committee said.
As an example, it cited In re Carlton, 2010 BL 96937, 708 F. Supp.2d 524, 26 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 376 (D. Md. 2010), which found that a telecommuting arrangement can satisfy a court rule requiring bar members to have their “principal office” in the jurisdiction where they are licensed. The committee also referenced New Jersey's recent rule amendment eliminating that state's bona fide office requirement and allowing lawyers to have a virtual law office if certain conditions are met. See 29 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 70.
Drawing on ethics opinions from other jurisdictions, the committee offered guidance about particular ethics challenges that go along with using a VLO beyond those present in a traditional practice:
• Supervisory responsibilities under Rules 5.1 and 5.3 may be arduous to fulfill when the lawyer and her subordinate lawyers and nonlawyer assistants work out of separate physical locations.
• A lawyer who uses a VLO's shared services and office space must guard against improper disclosure of client information that would violate Rule 1.6.
• Lawyers who frequently are away from their VLO must be mindful of the duty to communicate with clients under Rule 1.4 and must remain available to meet with clients and respond promptly to their requests for information.
• A lawyer who has a VLO should provide for personal delivery and acceptance of service by identifying an agent for these purposes or arranging for the VLO to accept service.
Copyright 2014, The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.
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