Sharing space, not secrets: Office sharing insights from ABA Formal Opinion 507
The landscape of our lives looks very different now than it did before the pandemic struck. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. Remote work is more common than ever and increased technology usage has enabled more flexible and creative work arrangements. Because five-day in-office work weeks are less common, office-sharing arrangements have become more palatable for lawyers. Less office space is required due to hybrid work schedules, thus allowing more people to work from one office and divide rental costs while also sharing resources.
However, with more office-sharing by attorneys comes the need to carefully balance the convenience with the potential risks this type of arrangement can pose. Fortunately, there is guidance available in the form of a recently released ethics opinion, ABA Formal Opinion 507.
Handed down in July, this opinion addresses the ethical issues that arise when lawyers participate in office-sharing arrangements. The Standing Committee on Ethics and Responsibility concluded that it is generally permissible for lawyers to share offices with others, but when doing so there are a number of ethical issues to keep top of mind.
First, the Committee cautioned that it’s essential to take steps to protect client confidentiality. Lawyers must ensure that the physical arrangement of the shared office space does not expose client information to other office-sharing lawyers or their staff. Safeguards that should be considered include maintaining separate waiting areas, installing privacy screens, and using technology to provide secure storage for client files
The Committee discussed the importance of using separate telephone lines and computer systems, along with providing staff training to protect client information: "(L)awyers can also restrict access to client-related information by securing physical client files in locked cabinets or offices and using separate telephone lines and computer systems. Lawyers, however, may overcome confidentiality concerns with shared telephone and computer systems with appropriate security measures, staff training, and client disclosures."
While keeping client information secure is paramount, it's not the only ethical obligation lawyers need to consider. Clear communication was also emphasized. According to the Committee, lawyers have an ethical obligation to clearly communicate the nature of their relationship to the public and clients to avoid misleading impressions. There are a number of ways that lawyers sharing office space can ensure compliance, including using separate business cards, letterheads, and directory listings.
The Committee also opined on the importance of taking steps to avoid conflicts of interest, explaining that attorneys “should pay particular attention to (1) avoiding the imputation of conflicts of interest, (2) taking on potential new matters that are adverse to clients represented by other office sharing lawyers, and (3) consulting with fellow office sharing lawyers.”
Another area to approach with caution is when sharing staff with other lawyers.
If lawyers decide to share support staff, they must instruct all employees regarding their confidentiality obligations and should take steps to supervise them appropriately.
Finally, the Committee addressed issues that arise when lawyers who share office space consult with one another about their cases. According to the Commitee, lawyers should avoid disclosing client-identifying or privileged information during informal consultations, and discussing issues through hypotheticals is recommended. Notably, these consultations can sometimes lead to unexpected conflicts of interest that could limit a lawyer's ability to represent current or future clients. Therefore, a standard conflict check should be conducted before any informal consultation discussion in order to mitigate this risk.
The pandemic and technological changes have upended traditional legal practices. As a result, we now have an unprecedented array of options for how and where to conduct our work. But as this opinion reminds us, with this newfound flexibility comes a heightened ethical burden. In a landscape that's shifting almost as quickly as technology itself, this opinion provides much-needed guidance for lawyers seeking to take advantage of the many benefits offered by hybrid work arrangements like office-sharing.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Head of SME and External Education at MyCase legal practice management software, an AffiniPay company. She is the nationally-recognized author of "Cloud Computing for Lawyers" (2012) and co-authors "Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier" (2010), both published by the American Bar Association. She also co-authors "Criminal Law in New York," a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for Above the Law, ABA Journal, and The Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. She is an ABA Legal Rebel, and is listed on the Fastcase 50 and ABA LTRC Women in Legal Tech. She can be contacted at [email protected].