Virtual law offices OK’d, but unauthorized practice issues linger

June 30, 2017

By Karen Rubin

Practicing law out of a “virtual law office” (“VLO”), without being tied to the overhead expense of a brick-and-mortar facility, is increasingly attractive to lawyers in many stages of their careers:  junior lawyers hanging out their shingles in a tough market; senior lawyers who want to keep practicing, but in a flexible format; and mid-career lawyers who are attracted to the increased options for leveraging their practices by using cutting-edge technology.

Ohio’s Board of Professional Conduct is the latest to issue an ethics opinion on the subject. But by not discussing an inherent issue—multi-jurisdictional practice and possible unauthorized practice—the Ohio opinion leaves some gaps.

VLO:  OK in OH

The Ohio Board’s opinion lays out the basic concepts of a VLO:  it typically involves communicating with clients “almost exclusively” in a non-face-to-face way, using various forms of technology, including secure internet portals, and without “a physical office where the lawyer works, meets with clients, and stores client files.” Following the lead of several earlier ethics opinions, including from FloridaPennsylvaniaNorth Carolina and Washington, the Ohio Board in general greenlights VLO’s for lawyers in the Buckeye State.

The Board pointed to several ethics duties inherent in operating a VLO:

  • maintaining the technological competence needed to operate the VLO;
  • using reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertently disclosing client information;
  • discussing at the outset of the representation the office technology the lawyer uses;
  • keeping up adequate communication with the client, “regardless of the type of technology used;” and
  • making reasonable efforts to ensure that technology vendors are providing their services “in a manner compatible with the lawyer’s professional obligations,” as required by Ohio’s version of Model Rule 5.3(a).

“Office address” requirement

Some jurisdictions—but not Ohio—have bar rules or court rules requiring a lawyer to have a “bona fide office,” interpreted as traditional office space. Such rules clearly limit the ability to operate through a VLO. But even without a bona fide office requirement, a corollary issue lurks:  most state versions of Model Rule 7.2(c) require legal marketing materials to include the “office address of … [a] lawyer … responsible” for the advertising.

The Oho Board resolved that issue, saying that the language does not require a physical address, and can also include the lawyer’s home address, the address of shared office space or even a registered post office box. In order to avoid being misleading, lawyers who have untethered themselves from physical offices must state in their advertising that they are able to meet in person with clients “by appointment only.”

VLO’s and UPL/MJP

The Ohio Board’s opinion doesn’t discuss multi-jurisdiction practice, or when an Ohio lawyer’s operation of a VLO might risk crossing the line into the unauthorized practice of law (“UPL’) in another state. That’s somewhat puzzling—first, because Model Rule 5.5(a) (as adopted in Ohio and elsewhere), bars lawyers from practicing in a jurisdiction in violation of regulations in that jurisdiction; and second, because the Board previously dealt with the flip side of the VLO/UPL issue. In 2011, the Board opined that out-of-state lawyers who represented Ohio residents through a VLO had impermissibly established a “systematic presence” in Ohio for the practice of law, in violation of Ohio’s version of Model Rule 5.5(b). The Board said that “‘systematic and continuous presence’ includes both physical and virtual presence in Ohio.”

Most jurisdictions have adopted some version of the rule prohibiting out-of-state lawyers from establishing a systematic presence in that jurisdiction. Therefore, if another state were to adopt Ohio’s stance that “systematic presence” includes virtual presence, Ohio lawyers could risk a UPL finding if they provide services to clients in that state through an Ohio-based VLO.  That’s a risk that the Ohio Board could have cautioned about.

Ethics opinions from California and Illinois (citing the 2011 Ohio opinion) have discussed the UPL issues with VLO’s.

The ABA’s Task force on E-Lawyering has advised in its Suggested Minimum Standards for Delivering Legal Services On-Line that lawyers operating VLO’s should avoid UPL by serving “only clients who are residents of the state where the firm is authorized to practice, or clients who have a matter within the state where the law firm is authorized to practice.”

That seems like a good way to stay out of border-crossing trouble, and to minimize UPL risks while using technology to engage in virtual practice, with its potential benefits.

Content courtesy of The Law for Lawyers Today: Ethics, Professional Responsibility and More blog. Ohio State Bar Association member Karen Rubin is an attorney for Thompson Hine.


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