A report issued by the Legal Referral Service (LRS) Committee of the New York City Bar supports a bill that would repeal an 1909 statute that requires New York lawyers to maintain a brick and mortar office in New York. The physical law office requirement is embodied in N.Y. Judiciary Law Section 470, which reads:
A person, regularly admitted to practice as an attorney and counsellor, in the courts of record of this state, whose office for the transaction of law business is within the state, may practice as such attorney or counsellor, although he resides in an adjoining state.
The New York Court of Appeals has interpreted Section 470 to require non-resident New York lawyers to maintain a physical office in New York if they want to practice law in the state.
Despite a widespread view that Section 470 is antiquated and discriminates against New York lawyers who reside out-of-state, in 2016, the Second Circuit held that the law was constitutional. As a result, non-resident New York lawyers who are otherwise fully qualified to offer legal services are prohibited from practicing law in New York unless they incur the expense and inconvenience of establishing a brick and mortar office in New York.
Although there were already good reasons to repeal Section 470, the LRS Committee's report notes that the COVID-19 crisis provides further support:
[I]n this new COVID-19-normal, [the costs of physical office] will include scrupulous cleaning and disinfecting to try to make the space as safe as possible even though the great likelihood is that clients and lawyers will not even meet there unless absolutely necessary. Office spaces are going unused and have proven to be unnecessary for lawyers to engage with their clients. Increasing costs to nonresident attorneys are very likely to affect an overall increase in the cost of services charged to clients exactly when thousands of New Yorkers will have difficulty paying legal fees for much needed services. Conversely, lowering overhead expenses enables lawyers to lower rates (or not raise them). In turn, more lawyers may be able to maintain a lower cost and more efficient practice in New York, potentially increase assistance to unrepresented litigants, and lessen the burden of unrepresented parties on the courts.
The President of the New York State Bar Association, Hank Greenberg, previously endorsed the bill in a Letter to the Editor of the New York Law Journal, entitled "It's Time to Repeal Judiciary Law 470," stating:
In a digital era where attorneys across the street and around the world are just a click away on their computer or smart phone, an antiquated rule from over a century ago requiring a physical office in the state no longer serves any purpose.
Non-resident New York lawyers who are otherwise fully qualified to offer legal services are prohibited from practicing law in New York unless they incur the expense and inconvenience of establishing a brick and mortar office in New York.