New Advisory Opinion on Virtual Offices
The Washington State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics recently released an advisory opinion surveying regulatory and risk management issues for lawyers practicing in so-called “virtual offices.” This emerging practice arrangement can range from a solo attorney working from home to an entire firm that lacks a traditional brick-and-mortar location. Virtual offices typically rely instead on electronic resources, such as cloud-based email, filing, and billing systems.
The new advisory opinion — No. 201601 — examines topics both unique to virtual offices and common to any practice without a traditional office location.
On the former, the opinion focuses on two questions of particular relevance to virtual office practitioners: (1) whether a physical office address is required and (2) what address must be used in marketing? The opinion concludes that although the WSBA Bylaws require a lawyer to furnish the Bar with a principal office address, that address need not be a physical address. Instead, a lawyer can use a post office box or the equivalent. Similarly, although RPC 7.2(c) requires that advertisements include an office address, the opinion finds that the office address may be the address the lawyer uses to receive mail and deliveries. Again, therefore, a post office box or the equivalent satisfies the rule.
On the latter, the new advisory opinion discusses the duties of supervision and confidentiality in the virtual office context. Since lawyers and staff typically do not work in the same physical location under a virtual office model, supervision can be more challenging and often must be approached on a more systematic basis than when the lawyers and staff involved are literally across the hall from each other. The opinion also recognizes that virtual offices often use cloud-based systems for access that are not location-dependent, and it cross-references this topic to Advisory Opinion 2215 (2012), which addresses cloud-computing generally. Both opinions are available on the WSBA website.