The Missouri Court of Appeals recently ruled that two attorneys who share office space may be members of the same firm and therefore not bound by the ethics rules on fee-sharing among unaffiliated lawyers.
In the underlying dispute, an attorney who rented office space from another lawyer agreed to split fees into cases they referred to each other. After moving out of the office, the attorney claimed that the fee-sharing agreement was invalid because it did not meet the requirements of Missouri Rule of Professional Conduct 4-1.5.
Rule 4-1.5(e) imposes requirements for fee division among lawyers who are not members of the same firm. As noted by the trial court, agreements that do not comply with the rule are unenforceable in Missouri. But the requirements of the rule do not apply when attorneys are in the same firm. Significantly, the comment to Rule 1.0(c) defines that two or more lawyers who present themselves to the public in any way suggesting they are a firm or conduct themselves as if they were a firm should be regarded as a firm under the Rules.
The court raised the following factors as evidence to support the finding that the attorneys held themselves out as being part of the same firm:
The attorneys shared space in a building with a single sign out front that read “Starke Law Offices”;
Clients entered through a door marked “Law Offices” that listed the attorneys with no indication they were unaffiliated;
The same phone number appeared on the sign and door;
Visitors calling the phone number were greeted the same way;
All visitors used the same reception area and were greeted by the same staff;
The attorney’s used the same forms;
One of the attorneys and his paralegal told referred clients he remained available if they had an issue with the lawyer he shared space with.