To avoid this, provide all staff – shared and otherwise – with clear instructions that they are not to discuss any client information, no matter how trivial, with anyone other than those in the firm to whom the client is connected. Further, they should not openly discuss any matters or leave any case materials in common areas like the library, lobby, conference rooms, restrooms, copy areas or hallways. Written guidelines distributed to everyone in the office can help establish clear boundaries, as will periodic training.
Avoid potential conflicts
If you want to have an officemate cover a court call for you, or some other aspect of the representation, you must get client consent and follow all applicable ethics rules regarding fee-sharing with unaffiliated lawyers.
Also, take extra care to avoid breaches of confidentiality if lawyers in the same space represent opposing parties. The risk that confidences will be shared, or other ethical improprieties will occur, is increased greatly in such situations. For those lawyers found to be in de facto partnerships, representing opposing sides could be an ethical violation. Informal sharing of confidential information also can cause conflicts problems. If you informally assist another lawyer’s client, you are likely to fail to include that fact in your own conflicts database. Later on, if you are asked to take on a representation adverse to that client, you will not be alerted to the conflict and may face disqualification, or worse, as a result.
Choose your words wisely
Be very careful how you communicate your relationship with the other lawyers to the public in general and to your clients individually. Avoid any communications that would tend to suggest affiliations with other lawyers that you do not actually have. For instance, use separate letterhead for each entity in the office space. Make sure that all door signs or marquees clearly indicate the various separate firms. And instruct your office receptionists to refer to each firm separately, including answering phones with the individual firm name rather than a collective phrase like, “law offices.”
Along these lines, do not list lawyers as “of counsel” on your letterhead, business cards or signs, unless you intend to be fully affiliated with that attorney for ethical and professional liability purposes. While “of counsel” may have no definite precise meaning in law, it suggests an ongoing association suggestive of a partnership or employer/employee relationship in which to ground a claim of vicarious liability. It may seem to be a good marketing ploy, but it will widen the reach of potential liability in a way you never wanted or intended.
Choose officemates wisely
Document your office sharing arrangement in a detailed written agreement. Include a confidentiality agreement that establishes that all officemates will endeavor to protect all client confidences, adhere to ethical rules, and maintain the separation of the various entities in the office space. It also is wise to include provisions that require consent of all other officemates before any one of the firms may sublet any space to any additional attorneys.
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