Sharing Office Space
As most people know, lawyers may share office space with other lawyers but with ethical considerations, such as client confidentiality, advertising, and conflicts of interest. For example, attorneys may not advertise their services in such a way that they mislead the public into believing that the lawyers sharing space are members of one law firm.
In a shared office scenario, attorneys sublease with other practitioners. The office’s common areas such as lobby, kitchen, conference room, etc., are shared by sub-tenants, who are required to either make equal or proportionate contributions based upon use for the common space, furniture, office equipment, select personnel, supplies, and resource materials.
A benefit of an office-sharing relationship is that a practitioner may establish and maintain high-profile office space in a prime location while only paying his or her share of the expenses. This eliminates the expense of paying the entire monthly overhead of leasing and operating an entire office.
Sharing office-space may provide newer attorneys access to other well-established attorneys who may act as guides and mentors. Fellow tenants are also potential referral sources that may help build the clientele of a beginning practitioner. Sharing the management responsibility saves attorneys time and provides flexibility in that practitioners may opt for full-time or part-time office use based upon their individual needs.
The challenge of sharing office space is that it requires a good working relationship and cooperation with everyone in the office. There are now multiple enterprises in one place each with their own individual office policies and procedures that must co-exist. This may be difficult since attorneys have different values in relevant matters such as office appearance, personnel, hours, and bill payment.
A successful working relationship under these circumstances requires individuals with similar values and practicing styles. And it requires a lot of patience, tolerance, and minding your own business, which may be difficult to find in the workplace. There are also important ethical considerations such as client confidentiality and security of firm and client funds.
Another reality of the situation is that, to some extent, each practitioner’s sustained success is dependent upon the financial success of his or her co-tenants. If one of them is unable to meet his or her financial responsibilities, then each co-tenant must assume that person’s share either temporarily or even permanently. When entering into this type of relationship, clarify cost-sharing for shared personnel, shared office equipment, and courses of action based on certain contingencies, such as if an office co-tenant decides to leave. Procedures for tracking and billing ordinary office expenses, such as photocopying, must be delineated. How will individual expenses, such as copying costs, be tracked and billed?
Finally, in any office sharing arrangement, the identities of the individual practitioners/firms are frequently blurred to all the tenants’ clients. An office visit may result in a client not knowing for certain whose office personnel they are encountering. This type of confusion may result in a reduction in the level of client care, if not a loss of clientele. There are also ethical considerations and implications related to an attorney’s advertising and the way personnel answer the telephone in this situation. The phone must be answered with a greeting that does not create the impression that those attorneys in the office are one law firm. Lawyers sharing offices that maintain separate entities need not screen for conflicts of interest. However, if they do operate as a single entity, they must establish a system to check for conflicts.
While lawyers may share offices with nonlawyers, they must exercise care that any listing of lawyers and nonlawyers is neither false nor misleading. Lawyers may even accept referrals provided that the lawyer may maintain his or her independent professional judgment and the parties exchange nothing of value.
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