Can a non-resident attorney ethically find and maintain a Boston Virtual Office?
We are often asked about the ethical implications of having a Boston virtual office. Many small firm attorneys believe virtual office rental arrangements fall in an ethical “gray area.”
This post will attempt to address this ethical issue with respect to Boston attorneys.
To do so, it is critical to first make a distinction between a “virtual office rental arrangement” and a “virtual law practice”, as they are two very different concepts that are frequently confused.
What is a Virtual Law Practice?
A virtual law practice (VLP) is a law firm that does not necessarily have a bricks-and-mortar office, but instead, is entirely based online.
Their legal work is typically delivered to clients using secure, cloud-based software that has a login portal and can be accessed by both client and attorney online.
Most often, these attorneys work from their homes or satellite offices. Client meetings can be done at the client’s location, in a rented conference room or via phone or video conference.
What is a virtual office rental arrangement?
A virtual office rental arrangement (VORA) is a financial arrangement where attorneys pay a low monthly fee (typically starting at under $100 month) to rent the use of a premium commercial address as well as access to certain in office amenities.
VORA’s are frequently used by solo attorneys and small law firms who prefer to produce legal work-product from one place (out of town or a home office) but want a commercial address and a professional office suite to conduct face-to-face business.
Essentially, a virtual office rental arrangement is the same as any traditional office rental in shared law office space, except with unbundled fees. The VORA is the “bricks & mortar storefront” for attorneys who prefer to produce legal work product somewhere other than a traditional office.
The office suite is always staffed with receptionists, so clients can go to the suite to drop off packages, and the law firm can receive service of process, mail and hand deliveries, whether the attorney is physically present in the office or not.
The Ethical Implications When Finding and Using a Boston Virtual Law Office
While virtual offices are becoming more and more common for many professionals, lawyers can sometimes be hesitant to use a VORA because of the unknown ethical implications. If you are thinking of using a Boston virtual law office for your practice, then these are the things you should look for when looking at different providers.
No matter where you’re working, client confidentiality is a huge concern. This concern is not exclusive to virtual offices, but a subject that often comes up.
Just like you shouldn’t conduct client meetings in a coffee shop, you shouldn’t speak about confidential matters in an open office setting.
So when looking for a virtual office provider, also be sure to look at the physical office space as well. This will make a big difference when the random client wants to meet in person.
Even though you are most likely not going to meet in the office every day, you need to make sure your virtual office provider has adequate private space where you can ensure the confidentiality of your conversation.
Much like confidentiality, when considering virtual office space for your firm, attorney-client privilege needs to be at the forefront of your mind. The right virtual office provider will make sure their facility and staff are informed and prepared to handle matters with attorney-client privilege in consideration.
Does the virtual office provider have an open room where all of the files are stored? Or do they provide cabinets that lock and are exclusive to each tenant? If your provider takes attorney-client privilege into account, then it should look more like the latter.
Also, in order to run an ethical virtual office, you need to make sure the facility’s staff are trained on attorney-client privilege. For example, say a staff member finds a file that was accidentally left in a conference room.
You need to be sure that the staff member knows to:
- Not open or read the document,
- Take the document and store it in a secure place that no else has access to, and
- Quickly figure out who used the conference room last and notify the attorney immediately.
If the staff member cannot do this then it’s doubtful that you will be able to run your practice ethically with this virtual office.
Part of using a virtual office ethically comes with how you describe/advertise your firm.
When marketing your firm, you have to make sure your firm is not mistaken for a virtual law practice.
The main difference being that a virtual law firm does not necessarily have a physical place of business associated with it. The firm can operate in a purely online capacity. And while virtual law firms often also use a virtual office, it’s not done universally.
By contrast, a lawyer who has virtual office rental arrangement has the same featured amenities as any traditional leased office space in a shared law office suite, but with an unbundled financial arrangement and non-exclusive use of a workspace.
Another potential ethical implication with using a virtual office has to deal with your ability to respond to clients when they either contact your virtual office provider or even walk in.
Most days, lawyers who use a virtual office for their firm’s are not in the physical workspace. But what happens when a client, potential client, or colleague/adversary comes to or calls your office unexpectedly? When this situation occurs a few things need to happen:
- The virtual office provider needs to know how you would like them to respond to any inquiries
- They need to take detailed notes about the visit and get your visitor’s contact information
- Your virtual office provider needs to notify you immediately.
The speed and accuracy of your virtual office provider is vital. If you are not receiving notice from a virtual office provider quickly or correctly, you are putting your practice and legal career at risk.
Using a virtual office for your practice can be an absolute game-changer, but you have to keep these ethical implications in mind. Be sure to do your research, look at the space, talk to the staff, only then will your practice be ready to rake in the benefits of a Boston virtual office.