It’s tough practising law as an independent practitioner.
The considerable outlay involved in setting up, and the overheads and time involved in managing a practice, fall squarely on your shoulders, often with no one but your trusty copies of Jutas or Butterworths to keep you company.
Sharing an office is analogous to getting a roommate – you gain someone to pay half the rent and utilities, as well as a new acquaintance to bounce ideas off.
Unfortunately, what could be a potential boon to lawyers in difficult economic times turns out to be an ethical quagmire. Rule 7 of the Code of Conduct for legal practitioners, which replaced Rule 44 of the Uniform Rule of the Attorneys Act and is issued in terms of Section 97(1) (b) of the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA), stipulates:
“An attorney may not . . . without the prior written consent of the Council, share offices with a person who is not an attorney or an employee of an attorney.”
A member who fails to comply with Rule 7 is guilty of unprofessional and/or dishonourable and/or unworthy conduct, as stated in Rule 13.
The above Rule is premised on four principles:
- Independence: Attorneys should retain their independence and not be subject to influence by third parties, which could inhibit their ability to give unbiased advice.
- Duty of confidentiality: One of the most sacred of an attorney’s ethical duties is the duty to protect the confidentiality of sensitive information provided by clients. The sharing of offices with persons who are not attorneys could place that duty at risk.
- Avoidance of confusion: Sharing offices with persons who are not practitioners could lead to confusion in the minds of the public. For example, if attorneys share premises with estate agents, insurance brokers, tax consultants and/or auditors, it may be difficult to discern who’s responsible for dispensing what advice.
- Prevention of touting: Lewis’ ‘Legal Ethics’1 gives as a rationale the fact that if an attorney established an office in such a manner that the customers of other persons will have incidental access thereto, it amounts to self-advertisement, if not touting in a strict sense.
1 Lewis, E. A. L. (1982). ‘Legal Ethics a Guide to Professional Conduct for South African Attorneys’.
What can legal practitioners do to keep overheads low?
The LPA’s Code of Conduct does allow attorneys to share office space with one another. In today’s competitive market, this is a smart option.
Sharing office space, along with overheads, resources, ideas and expertise, with like-minded attorneys can maximise your chances of success. It enables:
- significant rental and overhead savings
- sharing of resources, reducing costs and administrative burden
- sharing of ideas and expertise
- the opportunity to cross-refer matters
- greater credibility for your business.
- Together, these advantages translate to a healthier bottom line and a much greater chance of success in running your own practice.