What’s In a Name?

For a law firm or solo practice, much is in a name:  reputation, marketing, and ethical perils.  Ethical perils in a name?  Yes.  Firm and practice names must comply with Rule 7.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Names must also comply with Rule 7.1 which prohibits any misleading or deceptive communication. 

What is this Rule 7.5 of which you speak?

RULE 7.5 FIRM NAMES AND LETTERHEADS

Ethics & Discipline / Current Rules / Part IV (After January 1 / 2001) – Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (also includes Disciplinary Proceedings and Advisory Opinion rules) / CHAPTER 1 GEORGIA RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT AND ENFORCEMENT THEREOF

  1. A lawyer shall not use a firm name, letterhead or other professional designation that violates Rule 7.1.
  2. A law firm with offices in more than one jurisdiction may use the same name in each jurisdiction, but identification of the lawyers in an office of the firm shall indicate the jurisdictional limitations on those not licensed to practice in the jurisdiction where the office is located.
  3. The name of a lawyer holding public office shall not be used in the name of a law firm, or in communications on its behalf, during any substantial period in which the lawyer is not actively and regularly practicing with the firm.
  4. Lawyers may state or imply that they practice in a partnership or other organization only when that is the fact.
  5. A trade name may be used by a lawyer in private practice if:
    1. the trade name includes the name of at least one of the lawyers practicing under said name. A law firm name consisting solely of the name or names of deceased or retired members of the firm does not have to include the name of an active member of the firm; and
    2. the trade name does not imply a connection with a government entity, with a public or charitable legal services organization or any other organization, association or institution or entity, unless there is, in fact, a connection.

The maximum penalty for a violation of this Rule is a public reprimand.

Comment

[1] Firm names and letterheads are subject to the general requirement of all advertising that the communication must not be false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading. Therefore, lawyers sharing office facilities, but who are not in fact partners, may not denominate themselves as, for example, “Smith and Jones,” for that title suggests partnership in the practice of law. Nor may a firm engage in practice in Georgia under more than one name. For example, a firm practicing as A, B and C may not set up a separate office called “ABC Legal Clinic.”

[2] Trade names may be used so long as the name includes the name of at least one or more of the lawyers actively practicing with the firm. Firm names consisting entirely of the names of deceased or retired partners have traditionally been permitted and have proven a useful means of identification. Sub-paragraph (e)(1) permits their continued use as an exception to the requirement that a firm name include the name of at least one active member.

 

Suppose you want to name your firm or practice something catchier than “J. Doe, LLC.”  You want something bold and (you admit only to yourself) grandiose.  “Southeastern Legal Empire.” Perfect.  But you get a call from the Bar informing you that  Rule 7.5(e)(1) requires that a trade name include the name of at least one lawyer in the firm.  Reluctantly, you go with “Doe’s Southeastern Legal Empire.”  That satisfies Rule 7.5(e)(1).  You still have a problem.  Rule 7.5(a) provides that you cannot use a firm name that violates Rule 7.1.  You are a solo practitioner;  “empire” is misleading.  You are only licensed in Georgia;  “southeastern” is misleading.  Well, perhaps “Doe’s Georgia Legal Services”.  No.  Rule 7.5(e)(2) says that your trade name cannot imply a connection with a charitable legal services organization.  What’s a new solo to do?  “Doe’s Legal Emporium”—that works.   “Doe’s Law Works”.  Fine.  “Doe’s Law Shop”; “Legal Matters:  Doe Law Firm”;  “Doe’s Lawsuit Factory.”    Or anything else that percolates in your imagination, contains your name, does not mislead, and otherwise complies with Rule 7.5. 

Many solo practitioners name their practices “Doe & Associates.”  This is sometimes with the good faith expectation of expansion in the not too distant future.  It is sometimes simply a matter of wanting to project an image of being bigger than you are.  It is misleading in its suggestion that the practice consists of more than one lawyer.  Non-attorney staff are not “associates.”  A similar problem arises when lawyers who are simply sharing space use a joint name that indicates that they are in partnership.  If you don’t want to be responsible for your office-mate’s cases and potential liability, don’t use a name that suggests that you are. 

Your firm name can be imaginative, creative and even undignified if you wish.  It can project the image that you choose.  But it must comply with Rule 7.5.  If in doubt, call the ethics hotline to ask about the name that you are considering.  The maximum penalty for a violation of Rule 7.5 is a public reprimand, and while a public reprimand would give you visibility, it’s probably not the marketing edge that you want.  The maximum penalty for a violation of Rule 7.1 is disbarment. 

 – Tina

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