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If Consumers Want to Know Where Their Tomatoes Are Grown, Don’t They Have A Right To Know Where Their Lawyer Is Located?

by Carolyn Elefant on December 7, 2011 · 5 comments

in Ethics & Malpractice Issues, Solo Trends

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Yesterday, while shopping in WholeFoods (a reward to myself after a particularly grueling week consisting largely of take-out), I noticed several prominently displayed signs touting local produce. Though the Whole Foods stores in my area have carried local produce for some time, what made this display particularly interesting is that the sign disclosed both the name of the farm where the produce (in this case, tomatoes) were grown and its distance from the store (as an aside, I’m not sure why the sign offers two different distances, but they’re close enough).

So I got to thinking, if the source of consumers’ tomatoes is important enough for Whole Foods to identify on a sign, isn’t the location of one’s lawyer equally important? Though I support the concept of virtual law firms – among other things, they expand affordable access to law, enable lawyers to compete with online services like Legal Zoom and allow for increased work-life balance- I’m also troubled by those lawyers who hold themselves out as a virtual or “online only” firm to deceive or conceal information from clients.

For example, I’ve seen virtual or online law firms where the lawyer appears (say from Facebook or Twitter) to be physically located in State A (where the lawyer isn’t licensed) who target clients in State B (where the lawyer is licensed) — but who neglect to mention prominently on their website that they’re not physically located in State B. Or lawyers who merely state that they practice in California or New York, without providing an address indicating which part of the state where they practice.

So, what’s the problem, legal futurists ask. After all, law if fungible – and if Legal Zoom can deliver legal services from any location, why can’t lawyers do the same as well? And if consumers are purchasing legal services online, why would they care where the lawyer is physically located?

Truth be told, some clients do care.  Even those clients who choose delivery of legal services online may be uncomfortable to learn that their lawyer isn’t located where they believe him or her to be.  Take my own situation, as an example.  Here in DC, I serve clients all over the United States and the world – and I rarely meet or interact with them in person.  Much of what I do for my clients in DC can be transacted online – I rarely make a physical trip to FERC or the courts where I practice to drop off or obtain documents.  But some of my clients believe that I do, while others like to know that there’s a theoretical possibility for me to do so. In short, they want me in Washington D.C.

Now, Washington D.C. is a bar with easy reciprocity. It wouldn’t be hard for lawyers in Idaho or Nebraska or Maine to gain admission and hold themselves out as FERC practitioners without mentioning that they’re not located in Washington D.C.  And to me, that’s unfair.  Moreover, because many clients may not specifically ask about location, or may assume the firm is located in DC, it gives those firms a competitive advantage because they can undercut my pricing.

I think location matters more than many folks let on.  For those of you who have used virtual services, does it really not matter at all where the lawyer is physically located?  Personally, if a New York licensed lawyer drafts an incorporation for me out of a home office in India, it wouldn’t bother me per se – so long as I know where the lawyer is located.  If a lawyer didn’t disclose that information, I’d wonder what else he or she was holding back.

Of course, at the end of the day, the locational issue really isn’t about what lawyers want, but what clients deserve.  Clients have an unfettered right to the attorney of their choosing, and have the right to choose an attorney for any reason. As most lawyers know, a client’s decision to hire a particular attorney is as much based on visceral considerations – the tone of voice or firmness of handshake – as skills and credentials. As much as we’d like to, we can’t deny that location is one of those visceral considerations. Many clients who hire a lawyer to handle a New York matter want to know that the lawyer is physically located in New York, that the lawyer has physical access to courts and other lawyers to ask questions and that the client, if needed, can drop by the lawyer’s office. This is true, I believe, even where the lawyer is virtual. Thus, when a client hires a lawyer who is licensed in New York, but fails to mention that his physical location is in Alaska – or even India – a client would be justifiably upset. I certainly would be.

For that reason, all law firms, and virtual firms no exception, must be fully transparent about their physical location. Specifically, they should be required to disclose — prominently — on their websites where they’re located. I don’t think it has to be the actual physical location -for instance if a lawyer works from home, but has a local PO Box in the vicinity, that would suffice for purposes of disclosure.  Clients deserve this information to make a fully informed decision about the lawyer they’re going to hire — and it’s deceptive for a lawyers to lead clients to believe that they practice in a particular location when they don’t. After all, if location matters for tomatoes, shouldn’t it matter for lawyers?

  • http://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com Alison

    I disagree. While I agree that a lawyer shouldn’t actively hide where they’re located (that’s deceptive), I don’t really think it matters in most cases, and I doubt many clients care. Certainly there are some practice areas where location is more important (if there’s only paper filing or something like that), but, if you’re getting competent advice from someone licensed in the jurisdiction, why worry about where they happen to sleep? 

    People are so used to doing everything on the internet these days (even a phone call strikes me as a massive imposition), that it seems silly to be concerned about where someone happens to work. Cafe, home office, fancy downtown office, beach in Goa – who cares? If they’re good at what they do, I’d rather hire someone who surfs half the day than someone who toils away at the “right” address.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    If location isn’t a big deal, then why shouldn’t people disclose that information?  If it doesn’t matter to clients, then why do lawyers feel compelled to conceal their location?  
    Given that so many people telecommute these days, or work on the road, I don’t think lawyers should have to say specifically if they work from home or a downtown office or a virtual space. 

    But physical location still matters. I think that many clients would have no problem hiring an Albany lawyer to work on a case in NYC or vice versa.  But would they want an NY lawyer who is located in Alaska or India? I think that some would, some would not -but I am fairly certain that all of them who make the decision would want the courtesy of knowing where the lawyer is physically located.
    As for the point “I don’t care if the person surfs half the day, if they are good at what they do,” – well, I agree with that too.  But I think that the type of people who are able to be at the top of their field and surf half the day are both extraordinary and few and far between.

  • http://twitter.com/StephKimbro StephKimbro

    I agree that transparency is important.

    Another issue with posting a zipcode or PO Box address is that some of the online applications and directories we use have not been updated to fit the model. It can really put the law firm at a disadvantage when it comes to online marketing. Services like Foursquare, YELP, and many online lawyer directories want to limit a lawyer’s practice area to a single zipcode even though they can expand their services across the entire state.For example,  I do provide my clients with a PO Box address in my terms of use for the site and when they register for an account as well as a phone number to call me, but the few times that I have posted my PO Box as the address for my firm in other online applications they lock me into serving online clients within that PO Box zipcode. Of course that’s primarily the lawyer’s issue to deal with, but it probably does factor into how prominently the specific location of the lawyer is displayed on their site and in other profiles. In some ways, it also limits the clients when they have to select only a specific zipcode and are provided with legal representation limited by location. 

  • http://twitter.com/ReidyLaw Brian Reidy

    I also agree that transparency is important. However, what about a new solo trying to work from home with the long term goal of acquiring an office? I want to start a solo practice online (part-time) and potentially move into full time practice with an office. It seems that clients want to see stability, and I worry that a P.O. Box does not convey stability. However, I am also not sure that I want to list my home address. Any advice or ideas how to handle this? 

  • Norman Solberg

    Carolyn, it IS important as part of assuring the lawyer’s competence to confirm location. For example, I can do real estate matters, but I know nothing about, say, Florida homestead rights. 

    As you know, the AA has proposed Model Rules amendments on ethics for approval by the House of Delegates in August 2012 on the issue of virtual offices and activity by lawyers from other jurisdictions including foreign countries. In Japan, where I practice, there are several US lawyers who are not licensed locally even though it is required. One even has given up his US bar license as “unnecessary.” He markets heavily online, but of course does not say that he in unlicensed, unsupervised, un-CLEed and uninsured for malpractice. In my opinion, he is also inexperienced in the areas where he offers services. Sooner or later, clients will suffer and all US lawyers will be tarred by his actions.

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