November 30, 2016 Practice Points

Coworking Spaces and Maintaining Professional Responsibility

By Janice V. Arellano

Continuing legal education courses providing Ethics credits often discuss working with "millennials" and "baby boomers" and how to bridge the gap between the generations so that we can work together as attorneys in the same space. Additionally, the ability to work remotely has also changed the landscape of the legal profession that is still hard for baby boomers to grasp because they were the generation accustomed to long hours in the office. Aside from these common trends, law firms and organizations are becoming more efficient with their actual physical workspace and set up shop in coworking buildings. For many recent law school graduates who want to "hang up their own shingle" they are finding it hard to initially manage law school debt coupled with overhead costs and end up considering coworking spaces, but they come with ethical consequences if they are not careful.

While office sharing is not new to the legal profession, it is becoming a booming trend for all types of lawyers both in private and public interest work. In some of the largest private firms, there is a benefit to opening satellite offices and having short-term spaces both nationally and internationally. With respect to the public interest or government attorney, low funding also leads to the coworking environment. Recently, the New Jersey Appellate Division in New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanancy v. G.S. and K.S., (App. Div., November 22, 2016) concluded there was no conflict when two public defenders in the same office space represented opposing parents in a child custody dispute. This practice point will provide a general overview of coworking spaces with tips on maintaining professional responsibility in these settings.

Coworking spaces are alternative office spaces that house multiple organizations, entrepreneurs and businesses in one place. This office space can be an open space, lounge or set of conference rooms for rent on an as needed basis or for daily access. According to a recent National Law Review article, these "collaborative" or "shared" workspaces are developing as another option to traditional office leases and often provide millennials the opportunity to have access to perks that they could not otherwise afford.

Here are some tips to maintaining an ethical coworking space:

1. Confidentiality: Ensure client confidentiality by separating client files as well as taking care that the emails and any communications with the client are solely between attorney and client. Find a space within the coworking environment to be able to speak only with your client in a private, quiet place. See Model Rule 1.6 for reference.

2. Conflicts of Interest: Know the other businesses in your coworking space so that there is no appearance of conflicts in your own work. See Model Rule 1.7

3. Fee Splitting and Referrals with Lawyers and Nonlaywers: If another lawyer and nonlawyer in your coworking space can assist on a matter, make sure that the client knows that there may be a fee splitting arrangement and it is confirmed in writing. Additionally, be mindful of referrals and expectations as a result. See Model Rules 1.5 and 5.4.

4. Partnership or Not: Your clients should be aware whether you are in a partnership with other lawyers or nonlawyers in your coworking space. See Model Rule 7.5

5. Safekeeping Fiduciary Duties: Ensure there is a safe deposit box, filing cabinet or trust account to guard client's money. See Model Rule 1.15.

Janice V. Arellano is an associate at Methfessel & Werbel in Edison, New Jersey, and member of the newsletter committee of the Minority Trial Lawyer.


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