Thanks to innovations in technology, many attorneys no longer need a physical office in order to practice law. Given the high cost of office space in some areas, it even makes good business sense. However, several states still require attorneys to hang a shingle outside of the digital world.
For states that still follow the “bona fide office” rule, changes are coming, albeit slowly. New Jersey recently amended its Rules of Professional Responsibility to eliminate the need for New Jersey attorneys to maintain a fixed physical location for the practice of law.
Under the relaxed Rule 1:21-1:
An attorney need not maintain a fixed physical location, but must structure his or her practice in such a manner as to assure…prompt and reliable communication with and accessibility by clients, other counsel, and judicial and administrative tribunals before which the attorney may practice, provided that an attorney must designate one or more fixed physical locations where client files and the attorney’s business and financial records may be inspected on short notice by duly authorized regulatory authorities, where mail or hand- deliveries may be made and promptly received, and where process may be served on the attorney for all actions, including disciplinary actions, that may arise out of the practice of law and activities related thereto.
As the new rule highlights, New Jersey lawyers still cannot go completely virtual. For instance, they must still designate a physical address for mail delivery and inspection of records.
In addition, the new rule also spells out what lawyers must do make themselves available to clients. It states that the prompt and reliable communication required by the rule “may be achieved through maintenance of telephone service staffed by individuals with whom the attorney is in regular contact during normal business hours, through promptly returned voicemail or electronic mail service, or through any other means demonstrably likely to meet the standard enunciated in subsection (a)(1)” [detailed above]. The rule also requires attorneys in New Jersey to make themselves available for in-person consultations requested by clients at mutually convenient times and places.
For many New Jersey lawyers hoping to shun their office space, the rule has been a long time coming. However, the final product demonstrates that the practice of law can evolve with technology while still maintaining protections for clients.