Lawyers want Bar Council to stop fighting innovations, move with the times

Subsequent to my article “Malaysian Bar Council bans lawyers from using virtual offices“, the Malay Mail interviewed me regarding the ban of virtual office. In their article entitled “Lawyers want Bar Council to stop fighting innovations, move with the times“, they stated the following:-

Foong Cheng Leong, who runs a law firm on his own as a sole proprietor, said he used to have a virtual office, where the service provider would provide a receptionist at an office space to take phone calls that would be conveyed to him through SMS, to receive and forward mail to him, and also provide a meeting room for use. Such services and the office premises can be used by other businesses at the same time too.

The virtual office located here only cost him RM1,200 a year, compared to renting an office in Publika, near the Kuala Lumpur courthouse, that currently costs RM4 per sq ft that could amount to RM3,200 a month for a 753 sq ft unit.

“Confidentiality is a valid reason, but I don’t see any problem with it. In the virtual office, the receptionist doesn’t open letters,” Foong told Malay Mail Online in an interview.

The intellectual property and information technology lawyer said big firms do not like virtual offices as small firms using such offices would be able to charge much lower legal fees, compared to large practices that need to cover huge overhead costs like rental and staff salaries.

According to the Bar Council, mid-sized firms in Malaysia have about 30 to 40 lawyers, while big firms have close to 100.

Foong, who works from home and stores clients’ documents there, said his house is more secure than offices, pointing out too that most files are now electronic and transactions are done online.

“IT security is more important than physical security,” he said, adding that he generally meets clients at their office.

The Bar Council issued a circular in March 2014 banning lawyers from using virtual offices. A group of lawyers then met with the Bar Council’s legal practice committee to discuss the ban.

However, the Bar Council later issued a letter dated August 21 this year to the group, saying it would maintain the ban on virtual offices. In the letter sighted by Malay Mail Online, the Bar Council cited issues of solicitor-client privilege, the keeping and storing of physical documents, and the accessibility and traceability of lawyers being compromised through virtual offices.

“Don’t ban virtual offices. Regulate them,” Foong told Malay Mail Online in response

Stephen Furnari, whom I quoted in my earlier article, also published a response to the ban by the Malaysian Bar Council. In this article, Malaysian Bar Bans Virtual Office Rentals, Solos Frustrated, Stephen said:-

Recently, bar regulators around the world have been forced to reconcile outdated rules regarding attorney office space with the realities of modern day law practice. Several jurisdictions have come under fire from attorneys, forcing changes in the law.

Two notable and highly-public examples include the relaxation of the “bona fide” office requirement in New Jersey permitting the use of virtual offices, and the very public federal court battle about New York Judiciary Law §470 and its office requirements for non-residents.

It is no denial that confidentiality is an issue. But as pointed out by Stephen Furnari, the service providers are bound by duty of confidentiality. Receptionists at the virtual offices do not open mails of their clients. I’ve also never wrongly received any letters belonging to another.

Every innovation comes with a risk. Lawyers are storing documents in the cloud but such practice bring immense convenience to them and their clients. It is now a question of benefits against risk.

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