Virtual law offices, where lawyers practice law and interact with clients via their computer and mobile devices in lieu of a traditional brick and mortar office, are becoming more common. This is because 21st century technologies make it easier than ever for lawyers to manage their law practices and provide legal services to their clients using secure Web-based portals to communicate, share documents and information, and collaborate.
Virtual law offices offer a number of benefits to lawyers over traditional brick-and-mortar firms, including substantially reduced overhead, increased convenience and flexibility, and 24/7 access to information. But virtual practices are not without drawbacks and trigger a host of ethical issues that lawyers must carefully consider prior to launching a virtual law firm.
Fortunately, a number of ethics committees have weighed in on these issues as virtual practices increase in number. The Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on Professional Ethics is one of the latest to address the ethics of virtual practices in Formal Opinion 2014-2, which was handed down in June.
The committee considered two issues: 1) whether a New York lawyer may use the street address of a VLO located in New York state as a “principal law office address” for purposes of Rule 7.1(h), even though most of the lawyer’s work is done at another location, and 2) whether
a New York lawyer may use the street address of a VLO on the firm’s business cards, letterhead and website?
The attorney in this case planned to open a virtual law practice wherein, instead of maintaining a physical office, she would do most of her work from home but would meet with clients in an alternate physical location other than her home, such as an office that rented out space. The location where she would meet with clients, which the committee defined as a VLO for purposes of the opinion, would be the address that she sought to use as her “principal law office address” and was also the address she intended to use on her letterhead, website and business cards, since she preferred not to use her home address for security and privacy purposes.
In reaching its decision, the committee acknowledged the effects of technology on the practice of law and made this important observation: “(E)conomic conditions in the legal world and technological developments persuade us that we should not create obstacles to the use of VLOs as long as the interests of clients, the courts and the legal system are protected. Economic conditions and technological advances justify giving lawyers flexibility. Online research eliminates the need for a physical library. By using an Internet connection, a laptop computer, a mobile phone and other devices, a lawyer can communicate easily with colleagues, clients and adversaries from any location, at any time. Our interpretation of the rules should recognize these technological developments.”
The committee then concluded that the inquiring lawyer’s intended plan of action was ethically permissible and that she could use the VLO address as her “principal law office address” and on her law firm’s business cards, website and letterhead. But the committee cautioned that lawyers who follow this path must ensure that they comply with their “other ethical obligations, including duties under Rules 1.4, 1.6, 5.1, 5.3, 7.1(a), 7.1(h), 7.5(a)(4), 8.4(a) and 8.4(c).”
All in all this was a very well-thought-out and forward-thinking decision and one that bodes well for New York lawyers who would like to incorporate 21st century technologies into their law practices, whether VLOs or otherwise.
Nicole Black is a director at MyCase.com, a cloud-based law practice management platform. She is also of counsel to Fiandach & Fiandach in Rochester and is a GigaOM Pro analyst. She is the author of the ABA book “Cloud Computing for Lawyers,” coauthors the ABA book “Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier,” and co-authors “Criminal Law in New York,” a West-Thomson treatise. She speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes three legal blogs and can be reached at email@example.com.