General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter
SUMMER 1999 ISSUE
Beware the Pitfalls of Sharing Office Space
By Emily Eichenhorn
Attorneys who share office space may make their practices more profitable and fulfilling, but they could take on legal and ethical risks. Sharing space can create an apparent, or de facto, partnership that may place them at risk. You could be found vicariously liable for your officemates’ torts.
Sharing space raises the risk that the lawyers or staff will share confidential client information or commit other ethical violations, leading them to face breach of fiduciary duty claims, disqualification motions, and/or disciplinary proceedings.
To avoid the creation of de facto partnerships, be careful how you communicate your office relationships to the public and to your clients. Avoid any communications that would suggest affiliations with other lawyers. Use separate letterhead. Make sure that all door signs or marquees clearly indicate the separation of firms. Instruct office receptionists to refer to each firm separately, including answering phones with the individual firm name, rather than some collective phrase like, "law offices." Adhere to all ethics rules respecting the sharing of information or fees. Get client consent before sharing confidential client information with your officemates or if you want to have an officemate cover a court call or some other aspect of the representation for you.
Think about how you communicate with your officemates and staff. Memorialize every sharing agreement in writing and include a confidentiality provision that establishes that all officemates will endeavor to protect all client confidences, adhere to ethics rules, and maintain the separation of the various entities in the office space.
Provide all staff with clear instructions that they are not to discuss any client information, no matter how trivial, with anyone other than their own firm’s personnel, or with the firm to whom the client is connected, and that they should not openly discuss any matters, or leave case materials, in any common areas. Distribute written guidelines and periodically review them with everyone in every firm.
Although part of the reason for sharing space is to share some staff, it is important to maintain separate staff for the handling of confidential client information. Do not share personnel for handling open mail, faxes, or filing. Avoid having a single librarian conduct legal research for specific clients. Have a common receptionist send callers to answering machines, voicemail, or individual secretaries to leave messages. Each of these precautions will help avoid the sharing of confidential information across firm lines, as well as the imputation of knowledge under ethics rules.
Finally, if your officemates have shared confidential client information with you, a member of your firm or with your staff, or if you have provided legal assistance to an officemate’s client, enter that client’s name into your conflicts database. This will help alert you to any potential conflicts in the future should you be asked to take on a representation adverse to that client.
Emily Eichenhorn is with CNA Insurance in Chicago, concentrating in risk management.