The Florida Bar
Lawyers may practice two professions from the same premises. Lawyers also may share office space with nonlawyers. In both cases, certain ethical limitations apply.
(October 1, 1988)
(October 1, 1988)
RPC: 4-1.6, 4-5.4(a), 4-7.1, 4-7.2, 4-7.2(c), 4-7.4(a), 4-8.4(a)
Opinions: 61-9, 79-3
An attorney asks whether it is permissible for him to operate both his law practice and a separate, nonlegal business from the same suite of offices. He also asks whether an attorney ethically may share office space with a nonlawyer.
Previous opinions of this Committee have concluded that neither arrangement is prohibited. See Florida Opinions 79-3 and 61-9. There are, however, certain ethical guidelines that must be observed when an attorney operates "dual professions" from the same office or shares office space with a nonlawyer. Generally speaking, the attorney must preserve client confidences, avoid misleading appearances, refrain from prohibited solicitation practices, and not participate in improper division of legal fees.
Rule 4-1.6, Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, provides that an attorney must preserve in confidence all information relating to representation of his or her clients. An attorney sharing space with a nonlawyer must ensure that the nonlawyer and his or her employees do not have access to the attorney's client files. This can be done, for example, by keeping client files in a room to which the nonlawyers do not have access or by keeping the files in locking file cabinets. Additionally, the nonlawyers should not be able to overhear confidential attorney-client conversations.
Any advertising or other statements concerning an attorney or his or her law practice must be truthful and not misleading. Rules 4-7.1 and 4-7.2. Consequently, an attorney must take steps to avoid misleading the public as to the nature of the business activities being conducted within his or her offices. This means there should be a separate sign at the office entrance and on the building directory (if there is one) for each business or profession operated within the attorney's offices. For example, if attorney John Smith operated his law practice and a title company on the same premises he would need to post a sign for "John Smith, Attorney at Law" and a sign for "Smith Title Company." Or, if John Smith operated a law practice and Jane Jones operated a real estate brokerage in the same office suite, there should be a sign for each business. Furthermore, it is recommended that two businesses or professions which share space have separate telephone lines even if those lines will be answ ered by a common receptionist. If there is only a central incoming line, the receptionist must answer in a neutral manner (such as "professional offices") in order to avoid misleading callers.
An attorney is prohibited from engaging in in-person solicitation of legal employment, except from relatives, clients and former clients. Rule 4-7.4(a). This prohibition may not be evaded through the use of nonlawyer agents. Rule 4-8.4(a). In addition, Rule 4-7.2(c) provides that an attorney may not give "anything of value" in exchange for a recommendation. Of course, an attorney may not divide legal fees with a nonlawyer. Rule 4-5.4(a). These rules therefore prohibit an attorney from using a nonlawyer with whom he or she shares space as an agent for solicitation of legal employment or from paying the nonlawyer for referrals. An attorney who operates dual professions out of the same location must avoid using his nonlegal business as a vehicle for improper solicitation of legal employment.
It is important to note that this opinion is written from the standpoint of The Florida Bar and the legal profession. Other professions may have different or additional requirements for their members.