By Gina F. Rubel
Special to the Legal
Prior to today, New Jersey required attorneys to maintain a fixed physical office location in its state as a condition of practicing law there. That all changed on January 17 when the state Supreme Court amended NJ Rule 1:21-1 (Bona Fide Office). As a result, the rule will have some lawyers closing their proverbial doors.
According to the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct:
“The modifications, which take effect Feb. 1, drop a controversial mandate that required lawyers to maintain a fixed physical office location. However, the amended rule instructs lawyers who don't have a fixed office location to:
- maintain a system ensuring ‘prompt and reliable communication’ with clients, other attorneys and courts, such as a telephone service staffed during ordinary business hours, or a promptly returned voicemail or email service;
- be available for in-person consultations requested by clients at mutually convenient times and places;
- designate an actual location for inspection of files and records, hand deliveries and service of process; and
- fill out a form appointing the clerk of the New Jersey Supreme Court as agent for service of process.”
But a warning to attorneys not licensed to practice law in the Garden State: don’t go running to add “New Jersey” and a toll-free number to your website “contact us” page. The court maintained a provision in Rule 1:21-1(a) that requires lawyers licensed in other states to “maintain a bona fide office” if they practice in New Jersey under Rule of Professional Conduct 5.5(b) and (c), which address multijurisdictional practice.
On the other hand, as I read it, if you are licensed to practice law in New Jersey and meet all of the eligibility requirements, regardless of where your law firm is headquartered, you no longer need a physical address in New Jersey to practice law in the state.
The amendment also opens the door for N.J. solo lawyers to practice from home – something that has long been OK for their Pennsylvania counterparts. This is certainly a coup for working mothers and women in transition back into the legal workforce.
An advocate for the change lauded the amendment as keeping up with the times, stating that “many lawyers communicate with their clients via email, IMs, Skype and texting” and as a result, don’t need to maintain a bricks-and-mortar presence. One of the first things I thought when I read that was that ethics rules across the country need to more thoroughly define the types of client communications that should and should not be disseminated via non-traditional, non-preservable means. Better yet, law firms need social media, texting and electronic communication policies that clearly define such boundaries.
As a legal marketing professional, I should also note that the ethics rules on attorney communications are unaffected by the amendment.
Some advocates for the change also claim that legal services will be more affordable if attorneys don’t have to pay for office overhead. While in theory that makes sense, I doubt that any professional service provider would lower its rates as opposed to seeking higher gains – especially in lieu of the federal tax hikes that went into effect earlier this year.
Gina F. Rubel is the owner of Furia Rubel Communications, a strategic marketing and public relations agency with a niche in legal marketing. A former trial attorney, she is the author of Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers. Rubel and her agency have won many awards for legal communications, PR, media relations, website and graphic design, strategic planning, corporate philanthropy and leadership. She maintains a blog, is a contributor to National Law Review, The Legal Intelligencer Blog, AVVO Lawyernomics and The Huffington Post. You can find her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter. For more information, go to www.FuriaRubel.com.