Office-Sharing Lawyers Found to Be in Same Firm

The Missouri Court of Appeals recently ruled that two attorneys who share office space may be members of the same firm and therefore not bound by the ethics rules on fee-sharing among unaffiliated lawyers.

In the underlying dispute, an attorney who rented office space from another lawyer agreed to split fees into cases they referred to each other. After moving out of the office, the attorney claimed that the fee-sharing agreement was invalid because it did not meet the requirements of Missouri Rule of Professional Conduct 4-1.5.

Rule 4-1.5(e) imposes requirements for fee division among lawyers who are not members of the same firm. As noted by the trial court, agreements that do not comply with the rule are unenforceable in Missouri. But the requirements of the rule do not apply when attorneys are in the same firm. Significantly, the comment to Rule 1.0(c) defines that two or more lawyers who present themselves to the public in any way suggesting they are a firm or conduct themselves as if they were a firm should be regarded as a firm under the Rules.

The court raised the following factors as evidence to support the finding that the attorneys held themselves out as being part of the same firm:

  • The attorneys shared space in a building with a single sign out front that read “Starke Law Offices”;
  • Clients entered through a door marked “Law Offices” that listed the attorneys with no indication they were unaffiliated;
  • The same phone number appeared on the sign and door;
  • Visitors calling the phone number were greeted the same way;
  • All visitors used the same reception area and were greeted by the same staff;
  • The attorney’s used the same forms;
  • One of the attorneys and his paralegal told referred clients he remained available if they had an issue with the lawyer he shared space with.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Misconduct Sanctions Subject to Appeal

Misconduct sanctions “can seriously impair an attorney’s professional standing, reputation, and earning possibilities, such an order can’t be brushed off as easily as a gnat. It is not just a slap on the wrist, or an angry remark by a judge in the course of a trial or other hearing,” Judge Posner explained in his recent ruling in Martinez v. City of Chicago.

Judge Posner’s opinion holds that nonmonetary sanction orders are subject to appeal. His ruling aligns with eight other courts that have decided the issue. The opinion distinguishes a mere angry remark by a judge, which would not be grounds for appeal, from an unfounded misconduct sanctions order that is akin to defamation.

The case involved a lawsuit against the City of Chicago and others for malicious prosecution and other torts. The plaintiff’s lawyers requested files from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. The State Attorney’s Office claimed that the requested files no longer existed.

The district court ordered the State Attorney’s  Office to provide the plaintiff’s lawyers with access to 181 boxes of documents stored in a warehouse so that the plaintiff’s lawyers could attempt to locate the requested files .The plaintiff’s lawyers quickly found the relevant documents., The court ordered sanctions against the state attorneys for obstructing discovery.

To read the full opinion, click here.