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Ethically Speaking: The ethics involved in naming your law firm

John E. Bernacki

In New York, and in most other states, for that matter, there are strict rules when it comes to naming your law firm. Many reasons are given to support the law firm name restrictions, including upholding the honor of the profession and protecting legal consumers from deceptive practices.

As such, the creative attempts of New York lawyers to create memorable names for their law firms sometimes run afoul of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

This very scenario occurred in Opinion 920 (April 26), an ethics opinion recently handed down by the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics. At issue in this case was whether a law firm’s name could consist of only the inquiring attorney’s initials.

While at first glance this would seem to be a fairly innocuous request, the committee concluded that allowing a firm to be named in this way would be unethical. According to the committee, using the attorney’s initials as the firm’s name was akin to the unethical practice of naming a firm using a trade name: “Rule 7.5(b) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a ‘lawyer in private practice shall not practice under a trade name …’ This rule serves to protect the public from being deceived as to the identity, responsibility or status of those who use the firm name …”

The committee then explained its rationale for the conclusion that an attorney’s initials would constitute a trade name, relying on two of its prior opinions: “In N.Y. State 740 (2001) the committee opined that ‘[u]sing a name that is not the legal name of one or more partners or former partners in the law firm constitutes the use of a trade name’ within the meaning of the prohibition in the Code of Professional Responsibility … In N.Y. State 861 (2011) the committee opined that the New York office of an out-of-state firm could not use the firm name XYZ Firm where X, Y and Z were the first letters of the firm’s practice areas even if the firm name was ethical in the other state.”

However, although the committee declined to allow the attorney’s initials to make up the firm’s name, it explained that the attorney was not precluded from using his initials as the firm’s “motto.” The committee explained that the initials would be considered the firm’s motto and could appear immediately after the firm’s name: “(L)anguage or a name that is impermissible as a trade name may be permissible as a firm ‘motto,’ See In re von Wiegen, 63 N.Y.2d 163, 176-77 (1984) (finding that “The Country Lawyer” used underneath the firm name was a permissible motto rather than an impermissible trade name); N.Y. State 636 (1992) (permitting the name “The Will Store” as a motto in conjunction with the name or names of one or more lawyer principals but not standing alone).”

So, if branding the firm in order to make it stand out was the inquiring attorney’s primary intent, then using his initials as the firm’s motto might still achieve the desired effect. If, however, the intention was to simplify the name in order to make it easier to remember, then the “motto” compromise does little to forward that goal.

Of course, at the end of the day, your end goal is to provide your clients with outstanding legal representation. If you do that, then your firm is bound to be remembered, regardless of its name.

The Hon. John E. Bernacki is a Pittsford Town Court Justice. His law firm, John E. Bernacki Jr. PC, is located in Pittsford. He can be reached at www.johnbernackilaw.com.

 

 

One comment

  1. Is DLA Piper violating New York ethics rules by having offices in New York State? Dibb Lupton Alsop was shortened to DLA back in 2000, however “DLA Piper” can only reasonably be interpreted as the combination of a trade name “DLA” (i.e. not the name of a current or former partner) and a partner name “Piper”. According to NYSBA ETHICS OPINION 861, this is unethical since “use of the trade name as part of the firm name” is “misleading, since the public will have no idea as to what the letters refer”.

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