Sharing space with other attorneys is a common and practical way to trim expenses for small practitioners. It can be the path to a more desirable location with good support staff and reasonably-priced research resources, some camaraderie, ready-made back-up for the solo practitioner, and a referral pipeline.
But, it can also offer increased risk of facing a professional liability claim.
The biggest risk shared space presents is the possibility of being sued by the client of an officemate under a theory of vicarious liability arising from de facto partnership.
The theory is that, based on your and/or your officemates’ actions, the client believed—or at least could argue that it was reasonable for them to believe—that you and the other attorney were part of the same firm, or at least collaborating on the client’s matter, and thus each should be held liable for the mistakes of the other.
This type of claim is particularly annoying because, even if you are able to ultimately prove that you are not legally in partnership with the other attorney, you still will suffer from having to defend the claim to that point. Consequently, the most effective risk control for this situation is to work hard to avoid appearing to be your officemates’ partner.
An easy first step in this regard is having clear signage to indicate that there are distinct law firms housed there. Post separate signs with different fonts and avoid using verbiage that could imply a connection: e.g. have three separate signs stacked at the entrance rather than one sign that says, “Offices of Smith Law Firm, Jones Law Firm, and Larson Law Firm.”
But don’t stop at the front door, because, especially in this realm, actions speak louder than words. All the distinctive signage in the world isn’t going to offset you and your officemates regularly doing things that lawyers in single firms do, like sharing of confidential client information or standing in for an officemate at court hearings without getting prior consent from the client. Simply using language that shows little concern for avoiding confusion can cause trouble: describing one of your office mates as “another lawyer in the office,” could be enough for a judge to deny a motion to dismiss a suit against you.
Office staff, especially shared staff, can also be the culprits in raising risk. Receptionists who aren’t careful with their language, or who aren’t conscientious about keeping client information contained to the right practice, can allow an unhappy client of an officemate to argue that you hold some responsibility for their problems. Key is making sure that everyone in the space takes these concerns seriously. So, discuss this with your officemates and periodically check to make sure they are keeping up their end of the bargain.
Finally, insist that every attorney in the space has adequate professional liability coverage so that their clients have less incentive to turn to you to close any gap left by your officemate’s mistakes.