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Litigation Journal

Spring 2022: Embracing Change

Ethical Limits on Law Firm Names

Michael P Downey


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Ethical Limits on Law Firm Names
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“Congratulations,” Ethox greeted Paradox. “I hear you are leaving to start your own firm.”

“Yes,” Paradox said. “I am very excited. If you have a moment, I have a few questions about my new firm.”

Ethox nodded, so Paradox continued, “I recall a rule that limits law firm names. I looked at the ABA Model Rules but could not find it.”

“You are probably thinking of Model Rule 7.5,” Ethox said. “It was repealed in August 2018.”

“So do the ethics rules still limit firm names?” Paradox asked.

“Most states still have a version of Rule 7.5,” Ethox answered, “or the same limits somewhere else in their rules. But Rule 7.5 had outlived its usefulness.”

“Oh?” Paradox said.

“Yes,” Ethox said, “the earliest ethics codes prohibited law firms from operating under trade names, because a trade name might disguise a practitioner or his or her practice.

“Over time, however, most jurisdictions eased the prohibition against trade names. Private law firms now can generally use a trade name, as long as the name is not misleading. Currently, I believe only Kentucky, New Jersey, and Rhode Island still heavily restrict the use of trade names.

“Now that most states permit truthful trade names,” Ethox concluded, “Rule 7.5 became redundant. Rule 7.1 already prohibits lawyers from making false or misleading statements about their practice. So the ABA moved the limitations against misleading firm names to the comment to Rule 7.1, and deleted Rule 7.5.”

“The restrictions remain in the comment to Rule 7.1?” Paradox asked.

“Yes,” Ethox said. “So in naming your firm, the first big decision is whether you will use lawyers’ names—or non-lawyer owners’ names, if the jurisdiction allows non-lawyer law firm owners.

“If you use names, the names must be of owners of the firm who practice at the firm. You cannot use the names of non-owners, such as associates or of-counsel attorneys.

“When an owner whose name is in the firm name dies or retires, the firm can continue to use that name. But if a name owner joins a new firm or takes a public office, the firm generally must stop using the name.”

“Maybe I should just use a trade name,” Paradox muttered.

“If you use a trade name, it must be truthful, not misleading. It cannot suggest the firm is a government entity. And steer clear of words that suggest the firm is better or more aggressive than other firms. In 2013, the New Jersey Supreme Court criticized a law firm for including ‘alpha’ in its name, saying the term had no substantive meaning and instead improperly suggested primacy.”

“Wow, the regulation of firm names sounds intense,” Paradox laughed.

“Yes,” Ethox confirmed. “You also need to avoid a name that misleads about the size of the firm. If you are a solo, you can call yourself ‘Paradox, Attorney at Law’; ‘Paradox Law Firm’; or ‘Paradox Law Office.’ For a weird historical reason, you can also call yourself ‘Paradox Law Offices.’ But any other name that suggests multiple attorneys, including ‘Paradox Law Group’ or ‘Paradox Law Partners,’ would be improper.

“Along the same lines,” Ethox continued, “if you use ‘and Associate,’ there must be at least one associate. And if you use ‘and Associates,’ there must be multiple associates. Finally, you should not include the name of anyone who is not a part of your firm. So do not include the name of a lawyer who shares office space but has a totally separate practice.”

Paradox sighed. “Any more advice?”

“Yes,” Ethox advised, “make your firm name easy to say and spell. Also, be mindful that you will be putting it on all your pleadings. And consider what website you will use when picking your firm name, so the firm name and website can be closely connected for easy marketing.”

“Thanks,” Paradox said. “When I pick a name, I will check it with you.”