There is a proposed North Carolina ethics opinion that may affect virtual practitioners who use leased time-shared offices or PO Boxes as addresses because they work from home or only need to meet with clients infrequently.
Proposed 2012 Formal Ethics Opinion 6 “Use of Leased Time-Shared Office Address or Post Office Address on Letterhead and Advertising” was considered by the NC State Bar Ethics Committee at their meeting on July 19, 2012. The proposed opinion will be published in the next issue of the State Bar’s Journal and public comments will be accepted. Depending on the feedback received, the Committee will either adopt the opinion or decide whether to drop or revise it before meeting again.
For those of you familiar with the “bona fide office” rules of some states, the questions raised in the proposed opinion will ring a bell.
The second inquiry in the opinion specifically relates to virtual law practice:
Lawyer operates a “virtual law firm” from an office located in her home. She communicates with her clients online and by the telephone. She does not meet with clients in person except on rare occasions at locations outside of her home. Rule 7.2(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires a lawyer to include “the name and office address of at least one lawyer or law firm” on every advertisement. Lawyer would like to advertise her virtual law firm, but she does not want to include her home address in the advertisements because she is concerned about her safety and privacy. She is considering using a leased office address in her community, as described in Inquiry #1, to circumvent this problem, but would prefer not to incur this expense.
May Lawyer list her post office address, which is the address listed for her on the membership records of the North Carolina State Bar, on advertising to comply with Rule 7.2(c)?
Fortunately, the NC State Bar gets it. The proposed opinion states: “The requirement [of a street address] is no longer practical or necessary to avoid misleading the public or to insure that a lawyer responsible for the advertisement can be located by the State Bar.” The opinion states that a post office box address may be the address used by a virtual practitioner in advertising.
The first inquiry is more interesting because the fact pattern implies an advertising tactic rather than a question of cost and practicality. What if a law firm as a marketing strategy purchases leased office spaces in prestigious locations in large cities when in fact all of the lawyers actually live in a small, not to prestigious city in the state? Basically, this is a situation where a law firm would be trying to look bigger and more important than it really was to prospective clients and possibly in doing so, mislead that the firm has a presence in those locations that would be of some benefit to a prospective client.
The first inquiry states:
ABC Company offers to lease office space to law firms. The office lease is a time-sharing arrangement in which lawyers use meeting rooms by appointment. Depending upon the lease, ABC Company may also provide mail forwarding and personalized call answering. ABC Company advertises that it provides businesses with “prestigious addresses” that can be utilized on business cards and stationary.
May a law firm enter into a lease with ABC Company and use the leased office address as the law firm’s address on letterhead and advertising?
The opinion concludes:
…it would be misleading for a law firm to use a leased time-shared office address on letterhead or in advertising to infer that the law firm has an office or a lawyer located in a community when the law firm’s only connection with the community is the lease arrangement that allows a lawyer to use meeting rooms in that community on an “as needed” basis.
However, the opinion continues that the question of whether it is misleading has to be determined on a case by case basis. The opinion provides a few examples of where it would not be misleading, such as when the lawyer makes it clear to the public the purposes of that address. This may be handled through the use of a simple “by appointment only” line on the website or other advertisement. The lawyer can’t hold out to the public in advertising that just because they post an address on their firm website that they have some community involvement or reputation in that physical address location. In other words, the firm’s presence has to be explained in some way to the prospective clients.
As a virtual practitioner for the past seven years, I have dealt with this issue repeatedly and been asked the question by other NC lawyers interested in working from home offices or leasing office space while delivering legal services online. When I ran Kimbro Legal Services, I used my PO Box address on any advertising, including my website. However, I also made it clear on my website that I do not have a physical office address and only meet with clients online through a secure client portal. This past spring when I switched my solo virtual practice to join a different virtual law firm, I acquired a leased time-shared office space in the center of the state for the purposes of building out the firm state-wide. I continue to deliver services to clients online from my home office in Wilmington so I don’t use this leased office space except for mail delivery and on the rare occasion I need an office when I’m up in the Raleigh area. This leased office address goes on my profile page with the disclaimer “online or by appointment only” so that the nature of legal service delivery is clear to prospective clients.
It will be interesting to see what the feedback, if any, will be once the proposed opinion is published in the next Journal. If it is published as it is, the proposed opinion will provide a long overdue answer on this issue for the many virtual practitioners and traditional lawyers practicing from home offices and leased office spaces. This is a trend that is only going to increase in our profession. I’m relieved that the NC State Bar Ethics Committee recognizes that.