Legal Services Support: Guide to Shared Office Space

Some lawyers share office space with other lawyers or non-lawyers. This is often an effective way to manage the costs of practice, but there are increased risks, too. This guide will help you to reflect on the potential risks of a shared office space.

Key Risks of a Shared Office Space

  • Inadvertent sharing of confidential client information is a significant risk. Specific areas where the risk arises are document production areas / photocopiers, and shared office reception areas.
  • When space is shared with other disciplines, an extra challenge is keeping people who are not lawyers (and not bound by our Code of Professional Conduct) from seeing or overhearing your clients and their private business.
  • If you share a space with lawyers from a different practice who could represent opposing parties, a client may feel their information is too accessible and their interests compromised.
  • In open-concept offices there is even greater opportunity for breaches of confidentiality.
  • When in-house counsel offices are open concept or otherwise shared with other parts of the company, lawyers may see information that is confidential or privileged, or subject to privacy laws.

You’ll find applicable sections in the Code of Professional Conduct at section 3.3 and 3.4. Other sections of the Code may also be relevant.

Apply your professional skill and judgement regularly to all aspects of your office setup. Ask yourself:

  1. Who is/are the client(s) for a given office?
  2. Who will be in and around the office other than lawyers and legal support staff?
  3. Other than your lawyers and your dedicated support staff, who might:
    • answer phone calls, open mail, receive faxes or other communication where confidential or privileged information might be discussed;
    • overhear office discussions (in person or transmitted in some way);
    • overhear client discussions;
    • access office machines where data is stored or accessible;
    • see confidential or privileged information;
    • know when clients are visiting the office;
  4. access files, work areas, garbage, recycling or anything where confidential information might be, during or after hours?
  5. Reflecting on your Code of Professional Conduct obligations, what steps should be taken with respect to any of these questions, or any other questions counsel determines are relevant, to assure compliance?
  6. Can you reduce these to rules/procedures?
  7. Do you teach, reinforce, and periodically review those rules/procedures?
  8. How does the client feel about the confidentiality afforded by the situation? About any weaknesses? Will they feel the same way later if a problem occurs?

Sharing Space with Lawyers

If different parties to a matter might be represented within your space (e.g., divorcing spouses), additional concerns arise. For example, sharing assistants and other support staff increases the risk of confidentiality breaches.

In these circumstances, implement strong protections against seeing or hearing confidential or privileged information and obtain informed consent where appropriate. See Code 3.4-2

Keep in mind this commentary from the Code 3.3-1:

[7] Sole practitioners who practise in association with other lawyers in cost- sharing, space-sharing or other arrangements should be mindful of the risk of advertent or inadvertent disclosure of confidential information, even if the lawyers institute systems and procedures that are designed to insulate their respective practices. The issue may be heightened if a lawyer in the association represents a client on the other side of a dispute with the client of another lawyer in the association. Apart from conflict of interest issues such a situation may raise, the risk of such disclosure may depend on the extent to which the lawyers’ practices are integrated, physically and administratively, in the association.

When you share an office space with another lawyer, we recommend you connect with the Society’s Professional Responsibility Counsel, Heather Burchill, to reflect on your ethical obligations.

Good Initial Practices

If it is appropriate for you to share space, there are important steps to take:

  1. Your public face will clearly identify who shares the office. This means, for example, your website, business cards, and the first discussion with the client should let them know. Some clients would never even call to retain lawyer X if they knew the office was shared with lawyer y or a different business. People expect consulting a lawyer to be confidential.
  2. Have your own phone number, don’t share it with another business.
  3. Your firm’s first discussion with the client makes them aware you share the office and whatever services, and with whom.
  4. You clarify the situation for the client, if someone else spoke to them first.
  5. Document the situation, the risks and proposed solutions: e.g. person Y shares our reception area (and any other areas), so if you want to meet confidentially, request an offsite or virtual meeting; I share Z staff with Y, they will have contact with your matter/accounting information etc. but they are required to keep your information confidential.

Problems arise when lawyers assume the client will be ok with their sharing arrangement, and then the client figures it out – clients make assumptions too.

Tips & Reminders

  1. Have your own staff answer the phone and greet clients.
  2. Sharing machines (e.g. copier/printer, fax) with non-lawyers is risky.
  3. Safeguard all confidential material under password/lock and key.Only discuss client matters in areas where you or your staff cannot be overheard.
  4. Be vigilant about materials left in common areas (e.g. boardroom, reception).
  5. Confidentiality agreements are a good idea – but not as the primary way to deal with confidentiality, they’re a backup. See LIANS’ Service ProviderConfidentiality Agreement and Sample Confidentiality Agreement, for example. You should edit these to work with your situation. Be clear before meeting clients for the first time that you share office space, and who you share space with.
  6. Regularly review your procedures with your staff – you will all think of new issues as time passes.

This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point to help you share an office space.

Again, the concerns are greater if you share space with lawyers who could represent a client with a conflicting interest. Here, we advise a consultation to reflect on your obligations.

Resources

Lenore Rowntree (assisted by Barbara Buchanan, KC), “Lawyers “Practice Resource: Lawyers Sharing Space” (February 2014, updated January 2024). Law Society of British Columbia. lawsociety.bc.ca.

The Law Society of British Columbia has also published a practice resource. In applying this guidance, please be mindful of the differences in professional regulations and obligations between NS and BC.

Questions about managing your practice and professional obligations? Contact NSBS Legal Services Support at [email protected] or at (902) 422-1491.