Virtual Offices May Violate Ethics Rules, New Jersey Opinion Says
Lawyers who rent offices under time-sharing arrangements may violate New Jersey ethics rules if they hold out these workplaces as their principal place of business, according to a recent ethics opinion.
Such “virtual offices” violate the state requirement for a bona fide office, according to a joint opinion by the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics and the Committee on Attorney Advertising.
Most states no longer have a bona fide office rule, the New Jersey Law Journal reports. The joint opinion is “likely to reinforce New Jersey’s reputation among attorney regulators around the country as a state that bends its ethics rules slowly to the inchoate winds of social and economic change,” the story says.
According to the opinion, a virtual office refers to a time-sharing arrangement in which lawyers visit the office by appointment only. A receptionist serves all of those who rent space in the shared office, directing clients to the proper room at the appointed time. Depending on the lease, the receptionist may also receive and forward mail and phone calls.
New Jersey requires lawyers to maintain a bona fide office where clients are met, files are kept, mail is received, and the lawyer or “a responsible person acting on the attorney’s behalf” can be reached in person and by phone. The purpose, according to the opinion, is to make sure lawyers are available and can be found by clients.
A virtual office can’t be a bona fide office, the opinion says, since the lawyer is only present when he or she has reserved the space. And a receptionist at a virtual office doesn’t qualify as “a responsible person acting on the attorney’s behalf”—indeed such a receptionist shouldn’t be entrusted with confidential information, the opinion adds.
A home office, however, can meet the requirement for a bona fide office, the opinion says. And solos who can’t afford a receptionist can still meet the requirement, as long as absences from the office are only occasional and the lawyer can be reached by phone, e-mail or the like.
Some women lawyers are criticizing the opinion, the New Jersey Law Journal reports in a separate story. One of them is Washington, D.C., lawyer Carolyn Elefant, who writes about solo practice at MyShingle.com. She told the publication that lawyers who work at home may be reluctant to list their home office as their principal place of business because of security and privacy concerns.
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