Virtual law practices are nothing new. Many law firms have been opting to transition their businesses into the remote work-sphere to allow more time to work outside of a traditional office. While the convenience of having an executive suite or shared workspace for client meetings is a no-brainer to most, lately many law firms using these facilities for physical addresses have been negatively affected when it comes to Google My Business Listings.
Google quietly underwent a recent algorithm update affecting the platform’s Google My Business feature by expanding its understanding of the existence of virtual office locations. A virtual office can occur when a business subleases space within someone else’s office building, uses an executive suite, or otherwise shares an existing business address with another entity but doesn’t use it as its primary address for clients. Oftentimes, firms will use a virtual office to engineer search results to show they have multiple offices in different cities, when in fact they do not.
So what’s the big problem? For example, if a law firm’s main office is in Dallas, but it has one attorney in Austin that works primarily from home. While some firms would list a shared workspace or executive suite as their Austin location to show they are located in multiple cities, this is no longer a viable option for getting on Google Maps.
According to Google’s guidelines, a business can no longer create a listing or place a pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist. This specifically includes post office boxes and virtual offices, as they are not considered true physical locations. Additionally, mailboxes at mail-receiving locations are also not considered valid physical locations.
State Bar Associations’ Stance On Virtual Offices
And, it’s not just Google cracking down on virtual office locations. The American Bar Association specifically states in Model Rule 7.2 that if a law firm or attorney advertises their services, they must “include the name and office address of at least one lawyer or law firm responsible for its content.” Meaning the firm must showcase a physical office staffed by lawyers in its advertising efforts.
The State Bar of Texas also has specific regulations in place concerning how a business should be listed on a law firm website. Under Rule 7.04 of the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Conduct, “[a] lawyer or firm shall not advertise the existence of any office other than the principal office unless: (1) that other office is staffed by a lawyer at least three days a week; or (2) the advertisement states: (i) the days and times during which a lawyer will be present at that office, or (ii) that meetings with lawyers will be by appointment only.”
This lawyer advertising requirement is not only the law of the land in Texas. The Florida Bar also has guidelines in place for virtual offices. Under Florida Rule 4-7.12(a)(2), “all forms of lawyer advertising must disclose the city, town or county of one or more bona fide office locations of the lawyer or lawyers who will perform the services advertised. The Standing Committee on Advertising (SCA) has found that an advertisement is misleading if it lists law firm offices in several cities when, in fact, there are no bona fide firm offices in those cities.” To further clarify, The Florida Bar stated “an office in which there is little or no full-time staff, the lawyer is not present on a regular and continuing basis, and where a substantial portion of the necessary legal services will not be provided, is not a bona fide office for purposes of this rule.”
Bona fide office regulations are required in many states. In fact, the New York State Bar Association’s (NYSBA) Judiciary Law – JUD 470, requires non-resident licensed New York lawyers to maintain a bona fide office in New York in order to practice there. This does not apply to licensed New York lawyers who reside in the New York. This makes being familiar with your state’s bona fide office requirements incredibly important, as they can and do vary.
While many firms may struggle to come to terms with this change in Google’s policies, it is clear this new practice is already affecting local rankings for law firms around the country.
Legal Marketing Experts
The Certified Google Partner team at Stacey E. Burke, P.C. is well versed in lawyer advertising regulati9ons If your firm needs assistance with showcasing its team and practice areas in an ethically-compliant, effective, and thoughtful manner online, contact us today.