Sometimes a law firm name tells us a lot. A firm name composed of three guys, some of whom may have passed on, tells us the firm has been around for a while. “The Divorce Clinic” tells us what they do. If you need help with a merger, don’t bother calling them. “The Resolution Center” tells us how they approach matters. Don’t look for the pit bull lawyer there.
When Naming Your Firm, Be Ethical from the Get-Go
You would think that the ethics rules governing firm names would be consistent from one state to another, but they do vary and are worth noting. If you build up a brand name and then find out you need to change it, you’ve wasted a lot of time, energy and money.
Lawyers in every state should look out for these issues:
- The Common Denominator. No false or misleading names. Most states have adopted ABA Model Rule 7.5, which states that law firm names cannot be false or misleading. Sometimes “misleading” is obvious. Sometimes it is a bit tricky.
- This is obvious. If the firm name identifies a practice area, the lawyers need to be experienced in that area. If you have never prepared articles of incorporation for clients, but would like to, it’s a good idea to avoid a firm name like “The Incorporators.”
- This is tricky. If you say you have associates, you need to have associates. Small firm practitioners frequently go by a name such as Jane Doe & Associates. Associates are generally considered to be lawyers who are not partners or shareholders and who are, practically speaking, employees of the firm. Employees who are not lawyers, such as paralegals, investigators and other support staff, are not considered associates in most states. And “associates”? That means more than one.
- This is murky. Firm names must avoid implications they are tied to government agencies and public or chartable legal agencies. The University Legal Center, which is down the block from a university but not affiliated with it, or the Peoples Law Clinic, are examples of names that have been found to be misleading.
Some states have additional restrictions. A few conclude that trade names are misleading on their face and prohibit them altogether. These states include Arizona, Iowa, New York, Ohio, Mississippi and Texas. Be sure to check the rules of your state for direction on the use of a trade name. A few states permit trade names but require those firms to include the name of a lawyer in the firm in addition to the other information, such as the “Smith Bankruptcy Law Center.”
Finally, Florida and Louisiana have rules that permit trade names, but also require those names to be used in all circumstances, including letterhead and pleadings. This rule is sometimes known as the anti-AAArdvark rule. It is designed to dissuade lawyers from using ridiculous trade names merely to get a priority listing in directories.
Will Hornsby has served as Staff Counsel at the American Bar Association for the past 23 years. He writes and speaks extensively on issues of ethics, technology and client development. Follow him @willhornsby.
This material should not be construed as legal advice or the policy of the ABA or any of its constituent entities.
More Marketing Ethics Pointers from Will Hornsby
- Is Your Business Card Ethical?
- Can I Say That (On My Website)? Part One
- Can I Say That (About Directories)? Part Two
- Can I Say That (About My Specialty)? Part Three
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