Naming a law firm is one of the first things you’ll have to do when starting your new firm. If you’re a solo practitioner, this is a somewhat easier task, since there is no discussion about whose name comes first. However, both solo practitioners and small firms need to consider state rules and ethical issues when noodling law firm names.
The Ethics of Naming a Law Firm
There are two of us in the law practice, so there was no question our list of potential law firm names would include both of our last names. We also quickly decided that listing the names in alphabetical order sounded much better. So the big decision came when we had to choose what to include in our law firm name other than our actual surnames. Popular choices included things like “& Associates,” “Law Group,” and “The Law Offices of.”
In our opinion, all of those choices toed the line of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. The PA rules are identical to the Model Rules on this issue, but there have not been any opinions from the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board directly on point. There are cases from other jurisdictions, such as Minnesota, which hold that “[t]he use of the word ‘Associates’ or the phrase ‘& Associates’ in a law firm name, letterhead or other professional designation is false and misleading if the use conveys the impression the law firm has more attorneys practicing law in the firm than is actually the case.”
Our specific concerns were Rules 7.1 and 7.5. Rule 7.5(a) states:
A lawyer shall not use a firm name, letterhead or other professional designation that violates Rule 7.1. A trade name may be used by a lawyer in private practice if it does not imply a connection with a government agency or with a public or charitable legal services organization and is not otherwise in violation of Rule 7.1.
Since we didn’t plan on using a trade name, our main concern became 7.1, which prohibits “false and misleading statements” about the lawyer or lawyer’s services. That ties in with Rule 7.5(d) which awkwardly states:
Lawyers may state or imply that they practice in a partnership or other organization only when that is the fact.
So, we can’t make any false or misleading statements, and we can’t state that we are in a “partnership or other organization” if we are not. In my mind, that eliminates anything that talks about multiple law offices or associates. We have neither at the moment.
Similarly, a “law group” sounds like more than two people. To stay safe, we are just using CamsonRigby, LLC as our name for business purposes. We plan on using “Attorneys at Law” for advertising purposes, to make it clear that we are lawyers.
This is an interesting ethical issue that I see attorneys cross the line on regularly. If you start a firm and there are associates, then the associates leave, technically you should change the law firm name. But that’s a real hassle. I’ve spoken to Eric Cooperstein about this issue, and I agree with his thoughts:
The opinions on this issue are technically correct but they reflect the tendency of some courts and disciplinary agencies to over-regulate lawyers on advertising issues. I’m not aware of any actual instances in which consumers were misled by a law firm name. The use of “& Associates” is not likely any more misleading than law firm names that include dead or retired partners in their names. Sometimes law firms expand and contract. They should not have to worry about changing their firm name when the composition of the firm temporarily changes.
As new fish, we wanted to err on the side of caution. So “Attorneys at Law” it is.
State Regulations on Law Firm Names
In Pennsylvania, there can only be one corporation with the same name. This means that once you decide on the name, you have to make sure nobody has already taken it. Review the rules of incorporation for your state to see if there are similar restrictions. There may also be documents you need to file and fees you need to pay to create a fictitious name. Since we are using our last names, it is not a “fictitious name,” and we didn’t have to worry about that extra cost.
Read the next post in this series: "Three Questions I Answered Before Starting a Firm."