July 6, 2017

Operation of a Virtual Law Practice Permissible Under Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct

by Otto Beatty, Esq., Managing Director, Intelligent Office of Columbus

The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct recently issued an advisory permitting and recognizing Virtual Law Offices in the State of Ohio (Advisory Opinion 2017-05). This long overdue opinion recognizes the emerging trend of practicing law without a “brick and mortar” law office and utilizing technology, rather than face-to-face meetings and paper files and correspondence, to provide legal services to clients in Ohio. The Board concluded that the operation of a virtual law office is permissible under the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct.

The advisory opinion addresses two questions relating to ethical issues inherent in a virtual law practice. “1.) Is it proper for a lawyer to provide legal services exclusively, or almost exclusively, via a “virtual law office”?; and 2.) Is it proper for a lawyer operating primarily as a “virtual law office” to lease a shared, nonexclusive office space for the purpose of occasional face-to-face meetings with clients, or receiving mail?” Adv. Op. 2017-05. Most importantly, the Board has also provided a definition of Virtual Law Office and guidance on compliance with the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct when practicing in this manner.

Board reinforces that the conduct rules require a lawyer to stay abreast of changes in technology and make reasonable efforts to ensure that a client’s information, especially electronic data stored in the “cloud” is protected. Furthermore, the attorney must ensure that any third party technology vendors act in a manner consistent with the lawyer’s professional obligations. Finally, the Board provides an admonition that attorneys must maintain adequate communication with clients regardless of the use of technology and should be willing to meet in person or on the telephone upon a client reasonable request.

The issue of “office address” requirement in Prof.Cond.R. 7.2. (c) is also addressed. The Board opined that an office address provided in a lawyer communication can reflect a lawyer’s home or physical office, the address of shared office space, or a registered post office box. Furthermore, it is appropriate for a lawyer operating a virtual law office to share a non-exclusive office space with other non-lawyer professionals to receive mail, meet clients in person, or conduct depositions. Similar to the use of legal and cloud technology in virtual law practice, the Board instructs that lawyer must take precautions to ensure the confidentiality of client communication and information. Finally, a lawyer “must avoid the implication or misrepresentation that the lawyer works from a physical office when it is not the case.”

While this advisory opinion does not address all of the potential ethical issues raised by virtual law practice, it does recognize that the virtual law practice is a common, practical, and accepted manner to operate a law practice. Many seasoned and new attorneys are adopting some form of virtual law practice to reduce office and staff overhead, expand and modernize their practices, and strive for greater work-life balance.