Remote working has been a helpful change for many working professionals across a variety of industries. But lawyers practicing remotely in Florida and other states have worried for some time whether practicing their trade is legal or not. Many remote lawyers lack the licenses to practice in their new home states.
The American Bar Association has strict rules regarding where and how lawyers can practice law, especially if they aren’t licensed for specific jurisdictions or states. Fortunately for remote lawyers, the ABA recently released a ruling explaining the specifics of the rule and how they apply to remote workers in this new digital age.
What Does Model 5.5 State?
The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 5.5 essentially states that lawyers can’t practice law in a legal jurisdiction unless authorized by the rules. In other words, they can’t practice in jurisdictions where they don’t have the appropriate authority. In most cases, authority is gained by passing the state or jurisdiction bar exam.
For example, a Florida attorney cannot practice law in a Georgia city without taking the Georgia bar.
Additionally, Model Rule 5.5(b) states that lawyers can’t establish offices or other “systematic and continuous presence[s],” in the jurisdiction where they aren’t licensed to practice law. So lawyers can’t set up law offices in states where they aren’t licensed, either.
Why Have Some Lawyers Worried About Breaking the Law?
The COVID-19 pandemic has led many working professionals, including lawyers, to commute remotely to work. Remote workers now use digital platforms and telecommuting software to handle most of their job responsibilities.
Additionally, the pandemic has required many people to relocate. Certain lawyers may have relocated to Florida to continue their law practices online if they were unable to stay in their home states for financial reasons.
On the surface, these activities may seem to be in violation of ABA Model Rule 5.5. But the recent ruling by the ABA has clarified that it is not necessarily so.
The ABA’s Ruling – What Does it Mean for Lawyers Practicing Remotely in Florida?
The ABA issued its ruling on December 16, 2020, and came to a beneficial conclusion for remote legal workers. If a lawyer only deals with cases in their original jurisdiction, they aren’t breaking the law. This is true even if they carry out that work remotely from another jurisdiction.
Here’s a basic example:
- A lawyer originally based in Virginia moves to Florida because of financial problems due to the pandemic
- They continue to practice law and handle Virginia cases while remotely working from Florida
They do not carry out legal duties in Florida, where they are not licensed. So they are not breaking the law and can continue their practice without worrying.
Therefore, lawyers working remotely in Florida and other states have nothing to worry about. They just can’t handle cases in their new local jurisdictions.
What About Establishing Offices?
Regarding Model Rule 5.5(b), the ABA’s opinion settled the full meaning of “establish” as seen in the rule. The ABA concluded that a lawyer doesn’t technically “create” an office if they are only “incidentally” in a certain area or jurisdiction.
For example, imagine a Georgia lawyer who came to Florida because of COVID-19 or another reason. They then began to practice remotely. They would not necessarily have set up a Florida legal office and would not violate Model Rule 5.5(b).
The court stated that remotely practicing attorneys need to take reasonable steps to make their jurisdiction clear. For example, a lawyer’s website, business cards, advertising, and other promotional material must clearly indicate the practicing lawyer’s jurisdictional limits.
So a Tennessee lawyer practicing in Florida remotely would still need their website to show their Tennessee law office’s address and information.
This ruling is further reinforced by Model Rule 5.5(c)(4). This states that lawyers can provide their legal services on a temporary basis in a new local jurisdiction. The circumstances surrounding their move to a new location must be reasonable. Additionally, they can only provide legal services for parties in their licensed jurisdictions.
What Does This Mean for Remote Lawyers?
At this time, it means that remote lawyers can continue offering their legal services to people in their home jurisdictions. However, most remote lawyers will still want to return home sooner rather than later. Temporary remote practice seems to be the key takeaway from the model rule.
And remember, remote lawyers still have the same duty to supervise subordinate lawyers and non-lawyer staff members, even if they are all working remotely.