Friday, November 2, 2012

Attorneys and Real Estate Agents: Can they share office space?

During our recent continuing legal education course, Real Estate Business Ethics, held on October 24, 2012, I was asked by an attorney/student whether they could ethically share office space with a real estate brokerage office.

The answer is yes according to the New York County Lawyers' Association Committee on Professional Ethics in Opinion Number 733.

Although the answer is yes, the Committee cautioned as follows in rendering its Opinion: "Joint office sharing arrangements with non-Designated Professionals, while historically permitted, should be entered or continued only when precautions such as sub-dividing space and separating communications are undertaken, and these precautions will be particularly important whenever reciprocal referrals are also contemplated". 

The committee also offered the following suggestions: "If there is a common reception area, the signage and office nomenclature must not create the impression to the public that the lawyer and non-lawyer have a professional relationship. If there is one receptionist the same proscription applies. Existing space can be subdivided such that access to file rooms and computers containing confidential files is restricted."

Lastly, it must be notated that the Opinion is not binding on the Courts in enforcing the ethical rules and furthermore, the opinion referenced to the Lawyers Code of Professional Responsibility, which was replaced by the New York Rules of Professional Conduct on April 1, 2009 and therefore is not dispositive. Nonetheless, it appears that similar rules exist under the new Rules of Professional Conduct and that the Opinion's guidance remains applicable. The practitioner is advised to seek out a new opinion from their local Ethics Committee, pursuant to the new rules, before acting.