Law Society of Upper Canada bulletin on home offices and sharing office space
This was originally contained in the February 2017 Law Society of Upper Canada e-Bulletin.
Working from a home office or sharing workspace is becoming increasingly common as a means for lawyers to reduce the overhead costs of their law practices. Whether you are starting out in practice or considering changing your office space arrangements, you should ensure that your work space meets the needs of your law practice and must ensure that you are able to comply with your professional obligations.
Before committing to a home office, you should consider whether operating a law practice from home is limited by law (e.g., municipal zoning or condominium by-law) and whether any physical changes (e.g., renovations) will be needed to accommodate a home office or client access to your office.
If you choose to conduct your practice from home or to set up a home office for occasional work from home, you must ensure that you are able to meet your obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Rules”) and the by-laws to the Law Society Act. In the context of a home office, you should especially be mindful of your obligations to maintain confidentiality (s. 3.3) and preserve client property (s. 3.5). Specifically, a lawyer considering a home office must ensure he or she has the physical space required for a dedicated home office and, in some cases, may have to take additional steps to control access to the home office or client information. It is critical that the lawyer have privacy while working at home and secure storage for financial records, client files, as well as client property. This may require restricting access to the home office space and returning all documents and client information to a secure file storage location when the files are not in use. Measures must also be taken to preserve confidentiality and security of electronic client information, documents, and email viewed or stored on computers in a home office. This may include password-protection of the lawyer’s computer, segregation of electronic client files from personal files, and encryption of electronic files, particularly if the lawyer’s computer is also used by others in the household.
In order to determine whether an office sharing arrangement suits your practice needs, you should discuss relevant issues and terms with the prospective party or parties, such as:
- who will sign the lease as the tenant (i.e., one, some, or of all of the individuals or corporate entities sharing office premises);
- whether there will be shared staff, who will employ them, and who must fulfill any employment-related responsibilities (e.g., salary, standard deductions, benefits, etc.);
- whether there will be shared equipment and who will be responsible (e.g., for the purchase or lease, maintenance and repairs, etc.);
- whether there will be shared office supplies (e.g., printer or photocopier paper) and who will be responsible for purchasing;
- how joint expenses will be allocated among the parties to the arrangement (e.g., phone services, Internet access, utilities, etc.); and
- what will happen if there is a dispute or one or all of the parties involved choose to end the space sharing arrangement.
You may wish to consider putting the terms of the office sharing arrangement in writing. Doing so will clearly outline responsibilities and reduce the possibility of misunderstanding.
You must ensure that your office sharing arrangement allows you to meet all of your obligations under the Rules and by-laws. Of particular note, lawyers must be mindful that sharing office space does not afford them the entitlements of those who are partners in or employed by the same firm. For instance, if the lawyer is not a partner in or employee of the same firm as the individual with whom he or she is sharing office space, the lawyer is not permitted to discuss client files or share a trust account with that individual, even if the individual is a lawyer or paralegal. Moreover, lawyers must not misrepresent the office sharing arrangement through letterhead, signage, or website (e.g., suggesting that the lawyer and other party are one law firm), or market legal services in a way that does or is likely to mislead, confuse, or deceive anyone about the arrangement (s. 4.2). Finally, lawyers should also employ practices to preserve client confidentiality and property and may consider implementing similar practices to those outlined above with respect to home offices.