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June 16th, 2014
New Ethics Opinion Says New York Lawyers May Use a Virtual Law Office Address in Advertising
In the current legal and economic climate, some lawyers are using - or considering using - so-called "virtual law offices" (VLOs). VLOs help lawyers keep overhead low and take advantage of the flexible working arrangements afforded by new technology. But the Rules of Professional Conduct had placed limits on the use VLOs in certain communications. Now, a new ethics Opinion by the New York City Bar's Committee on Professional Ethics has held that New York attorneys may use the street address of a VLO as the "principal law office address" for the purposes of Rule 7.1(h) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct- even if most of the lawyer's work is done at another location. New York lawyers may also use the VLO address on business cards, letterhead, and the law firm's website. Here's a summary of the Opinion and information about an upcoming ethics CLE event.
A VLO, as used in the Opinion, refers to "a physical location that offers business services and facilities, such as private or semi-private work spaces, conference rooms, telephones, printers, photocopy machines, and mail drop services to lawyers." The Opinion distinguishes a VLO from a "virtual law practice," which "typically has no physical address and operates primarily over the Internet." (The Opinion clarifies that, while "a Virtual Law Practice might make use of the facilities of a VLO to conduct business, this opinion does not address the ethical issues associated with operating a Virtual Law Practice.")
Why "Physical" Street Addresses Had Been Required
New York Rule 7.1 requires lawyer and law firm advertisements to include the principal law office address at which services are being offered. Prior ethics opinions (including New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinions 756 and 964) had concluded that Rule 7.1(h) required a physical street address. Several policy considerations supported this conclusion. First, disclosure of a physical address should facilitate a prospective client's ability to make an intelligent selection of a lawyer. Second, a physical location enables members of the public or clients to meet with the lawyer, contact them by mail, and serve legal papers. And third, the absence of an address could be misleading to clients. According to Opinion 2014-02, each of these policy interests may be advanced by the use of a VLO.
Considerations When Using a VLO
The Opinion nevertheless cautioned lawyers using VLOs:
- Rules 5.1 and 5.3 may require lawyers using VLOs to take additional precautions to ensure they are fulfilling their responsibilities for supervising the conduct of subordinate lawyers and nonlawyers;
- Lawyers using VLOs may need to take reasonable steps to ensure that client confidential information is safeguarded as required by Rule 1.6(a);
- Lawyers using VLOs must discharge their ethical obligations under Rule 1.4 to communicate with clients and keep them apprised of the status of their legal matters - despite the fact the lawyers may frequently be away from the physical location that serves as their business address; and
- Lawyers must ensure that any address they use will be amenable to service of process. If the VLO is unable to accept service of process for the lawyer, he or she should designate an agent for service of process.
Learn More at an Upcoming Ethics CLE
Members of the New York City Bar Association's Committee on Professional Ethics will be speaking at an ethics CLE entitled "Answers to Everyday Ethical Questions" on June 26, 2014 at the New York City Bar building, located at 42 West 44th Street in New York. For more information, click here. Panelists will discuss the VLO Opinion as well as other recent opinions covering business arrangements with non-legal organizations, the duty to correct false evidence presented to a tribunal, and more. Friends and clients of Frankfurt Kurnit receive a 15% registration discount. Register by calling (212) 382 6663 and saying you are a friend of Frankfurt Kurnit and would like to take advantage of the 15% client/colleague discount.
If you have any questions about VLOs, or any other legal ethics matters, please contact Nicole Hyland at (212) 826 5552 or email@example.com, Ron Minkoff at (212) 705 4837 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Richard Maltz at (212) 705 4804 or email@example.com or any other member of the Frankfurt Kurnit Legal Ethics & Professional Responsibility Group.
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