CBA Record March-April 2021
Using a P.O. Box to Conduct Business: Ethical Considerations for Illinois Attorneys
By Judge E. Kenneth Wright, Jr. I n the post-Covid-19 world, more people are meeting each other via online platforms and conducting busi- ness virtually. The practice of law is no different. Some attorneys are setting up virtual law offices and some of them (such as retired judges) have adopted P.O. boxes as their business address. In Illinois, the ARDC has approved the use of a P.O. box. With virtual law practice becoming more common, and now almost a require- ment in the Covid era, bar associations in New Jersey and Washington have allowed attorneys to use a post office box, private mailbox, or a business service center as an office address, as long as it is not deceptive or misleading. On the other hand, a number of bars including the neighboring states of Illinois such as Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin (in addition to Delaware, Louisiana, New York) have the “bona fide office” requirement, which places office location restriction on their members. In a disciplinary proceeding, the Delaware Supreme Court suspended an attorney for violating the bona fide office requirement and held that the attorney was “engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the admin- istration of justice by failing to maintain a bona fide office for the practice of law in Delaware.” It can be concluded from the reasoning used by the Delaware Supreme Court that the reasoning behind the bona fide office requirement is to provide clients with a reliable way to access their attorneys. An attorney using a P.O. box may not be read- ily accessible by clients, and this presents a challenge in terms of ethical representation of clients. The Illinois ARDC currently allows for P.O. boxes as acceptable business address; attorneys can meet the burden to provide their contact information under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756 (g) (1) by providing a P.O. box number. However, conducting legal business through a P.O.
box presents many challenges. Often, practical or ethical consider- ations make use of a P.O. box infeasible or inconvenient. Some jurisdictions do not allow lawyers to use a P.O. Box on websites or letterhead. Another issue is that Federal Express doesn’t deliver to P.O. boxes, which presents an additional hurdle. Further, clients may find a P.O. box unprofessional or may question the attorney’s financial stability or long-term potential. True, clients want low overhead, but equally important, they want a lawyer who will be in business for the long haul. If an attorney doesn’t have an office, it also means they likely don’t have a secretary, a law clerk or anyone else helping them out. Clients will wonder who is going to answer the phone when the lawyer isn’t available. This creates a difficult situation for clients as having unfettered access to their attorneys is an important consider- ation for them. Other factors that may present ethical challenges when using a P.O. Box are: • The practice should be structured to assure prompt and reliable com- munication with and accessibility by clients, other counsel, and judicial and
administrative tribunals before which the attorney may practice; • The lawyer has designated one or more fixed physical locations where client files and the lawyer’s business and financial records may be inspected on short notice by duly authorized regulatory authorities; • Hand-deliveries may be made and promptly received; and • Process may be served on the attorney for all actions, including disciplinary actions, that may arise out of the prac- tice of law. Therefore, due to the ethical challenges presented by use of a P.O. box address for law practice, it might be more prudent for attorneys to use a physical address to avoid ethics violation and to ensure that clients have unrestricted access to them.
Judge E. Kenneth Wright Jr. presides over theCircuit Court of CookCounty’s Municipal Department District 1 and is a long-time member of the CBA Record Editorial Board.
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