Virtual Law Offices Permitted Under N.Y. Advertising Rules

According to the New York state bar’s ethics committee, attorney advertising ethics rules allow some nonresident attorneys who are licensed in New York to provide legal services to New Yorkers through a “purely virtual” office. In responding to the inquiry made by a transactional attorney wishing to establish a “virtual law office” in New York, where the attorney is licensed but does not live, the committee stated that the attorney must include the address of his principal office “which may be the Internet address of [the] virtual law office.”

As stated in the inquiry, the attorney working from a “virtual law office” would interact with clients electronically through a secure Internet portal, and use a relative residing in New York to answer calls made to the attorney’s New York number, forward mail to the attorney, and accept service of process on the attorney’s behalf. The attorney would advertise through electronic communications, such as a website, and inform prospective clients about the attorney’s “virtual office.”

Under Rule 7.1(h) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, which governs advertising, advertisements must contain the attorney’s principal law office address. The committee had previously concluded that Rule 7.1(h) “[provided] an independent basis for requiring a physical office.” Moreover, the New York Court of Appeals is currently considering a constitutional challenge to a statute that requires nonresident attorneys to maintain an office in the state in order to practice there.

However, the committee now decided that Rule 7.1(h) does not require an attorney who does only transactional work to have a physical office. The committee made it clear that the opinion “does not pass upon every potential form of virtual law practice,” and does not include litigation attorneys. The committee noted that Rule 7.1(h) states what an attorney’s advertising must contain, but does not expressly require attorneys to maintain a physical office, nor sets the standards for what would constitute such an office. The committee did not opine on how the court will resolve “the statutory issues regarding virtual law office” in the pending case, but made it clear that “neither Rule 7.1(h) nor any other advertising rule imposes or defines the contours of an attorney’s office or style of practice.”

The committee’s decision follows a trend of relaxing the physical office requirement. Other ethics panels, such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania, have allowed attorneys to operate a virtual law office under Rule 7.1(h), and a 2013 amendment eradicated the office requirement in New Jersey.

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