The Virginia State Bar has published Legal Ethics Opinion 1872 on virtual law offices and the use of temporary office space on March 29, 2013.
The ethics opinion acknowledges that virtual law offices and temporary or leased office spaces do not always go together, but it addresses both from the standpoint of ethics issues, such as providing contact information in marketing, supervision of lawyers and nonlawyers in the firm, confidentiality of the tech and competency using it to work with clients online. The opinion also acknowledges that these ethics issues are the same that come up with traditional firms just in a different context and should be treated as such – a message I’ve been preaching for years.
Perhaps because of the Virginia Disciplinary Matter that came up last year regarding the lawyer who was disciplined for violating lawyer advertising rules in marketing his virtual law firm, this new opinion mentions that the lawyer can’t list temporary office space in advertising a virtual law office to make the firm look like it is larger or has more resources than it actually does. It seems the easiest thing to comply with this would be to put “by appointment only” next to any contact address where you have temporary office space and want items mailed there but don’t actually work from that location on a regular basis. The opinion doesn’t say this, but that’s my take and also what the NC Bar put it its opinion on that topic last year.
As usual, the big key to complying with lawyer advertising rules comes down to being transparent in your business practices. This is something lawyers should be doing anyway as business owners even if the RPC weren’t there. Being false or misleading to clients about your ability to provide services to them isn’t going to win you loyal clients and referrals in the long run anyway. There’s another reason we should teach marketing and practical business skills to law students. We wouldn’t end up with practitioners who think acting like unscrupulous, hit ’em over the head, insincere sales people is going to help with long-term client development. That’s a rant for another day.
The new Virginia State Bar Ethics Opinion touches very generally on the basics to watch out for when operating a virtual law office. This is a good thing because I suspect in the next five to ten years all law firms will have some form of online delivery component even for their full-service, in-person clients and more will want to cut costs by using temporary office space. [HT to Niki Black for bringing this opinion to my attention.]