What's in a Name? the Ethical Aspects of Surnames, Trade Names and Nicknames

Article excerpt

Whether due to a merger, an identity campaign or the departure of a named partner or member, lawyers and marketers are often faced with issues involving a firm's name. The legal aspects of a firm's name include state regulatory matters, such as registering to do business, and the formation of the legal entity, such as a partnership or corporation. But lawyers and marketers also need to be mindful of the state ethics issues involved with firm names, trade names and nicknames.

Like most aspects of legal ethics, the rules provide clear direction for some issues, are less direct for other issues and, above all, vary from state to state. For the rules of specific states, see www.abanet.org/adrules.

Surnames: Obviously the most common type of firm name involves selected surnames of partners, members or shareholders. The difficult question here involves the firm's name when one of the named lawyers either dies or leaves the firm. As a matter of convenience, firms are permitted to continue with the use of the name of deceased members, according to state ethics opinions.

However, the circumstances vary when a named member leaves a firm. If the member retires and goes on inactive status, foregoing the right to practice, the firm may retain the individual's name in the firm name. However, if the member "retires" from the firm, but remains active and therefore retains the right to continue practicing elsewhere, the firm must remove the lawyer's name from the firm name, according to state ethics opinions.

Trade names: In most states, law firm names are governed by the rule comparable to ABA Model Rule 7.5(a). This rule specifically permits the use of trade names. However, the law firm's name must not violate the state's standard of false or misleading communications, and the trade name may not imply a connection with a government, public or charitable entity.

The "Everything Lawyers" is an example of a trade name that is misleading, because it implies the ability of the firm to address every legal issue. In fact, no law firm can really provide the entire spectrum of legal services (as much as "full service" firms would have us believe). Also, a law firm that is located on University Avenue, near a university, cannot use the trade name "The University Legal Clinic," because it implies a link to the university.

While most states permit the use of trade names, some states have variations. Eight states simply prohibit trade names, under the assumption that they are inherently misleading. Three other states (Georgia, Missouri and New Jersey) permit trade names, but require the name of a lawyer to be included in the name, e. …