Ethics Question of the Month November 2020

A Law Firm by Any Other Name . . .

Law firms and trade names

The Situation

Attorneys Ikeason, Northstar, and Willington are partners in a three-lawyer firm they call Ikeason, Northstar & Willington, LLP. All are family law attorneys and the firm limits its practice to family law matters. 

In the process of upgrading the firm’s website and rebranding the firm’s image, they decide to consider their option for changing the firm’s name. They would like to use a more memorable name to drive their new marketing campaign, preferably something shorter and more modern to create greater appeal for potential clients, especially younger people. As they brainstorm various ideas and options, they ultimately decide to choose from the following possibilities:

  1. Northstar Law LLP 
  2. Family First Lawyers LLP
  3. INW Law Firm LLP
  4. WIN Law Firm LLP

The Question

Under the current version of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, which of these potential names is permitted?

The Correct Answer is E Of 36 Responses, 16% are correct.

  1. A 4
  2. B 10
  3. C 5
  4. D 5
  5. E 6
  6. F 6

The Explanation

Current Rule 7.01 reads in part:

(a) A lawyer in private practice shall not practice under a trade name, a name that is misleading as to the identity of the lawyer or lawyers practicing under such name, or a firm name containing names other than those of one or more of the lawyers in the firm, except that the names of a professional corporation, professional association, limited liability partnership, or professional limited liability company may contain “P.C.,” “L.L.P.,” “P.L.L.C.,” or similar symbols indicating the nature of the organization, and if otherwise lawful a firm may use as, or continue to include in, its name the name or names of one or more deceased or retired members of the firm or of a predecessor firm in a continuing line of succession. Nothing herein shall prohibit a married woman from practicing under her maiden name.

*   *   *

(e) A lawyer shall not advertise in the public media or seek professional employment by any communication under a trade or fictitious name, except that a lawyer who practices under a firm name as authorized by paragraph (a) of this Rule may use that name in such advertisement or communication but only if that name is the firm name that appears on the lawyer’s letterhead, business cards, office sign, fee contracts, and with the lawyer’s signature on pleadings and other legal documents.

Comment 1 to Rule 7.01 states in part:

A lawyer or law firm may not practice law using a name that is misleading as to the identity of the lawyers practicing under such name, but the continued use of the name of a deceased or retired member of the firm or of a predecessor firm is not considered to be misleading. Trade names are generally considered inherently misleading. . . .

Generally speaking, the Rule limits law firm names to the names of current, deceased or retired lawyers in the firm.  The Rule explicitly prohibits the use of trade names, because they are “generally considered inherently misleading.”  Although the ABA Model Rules and most other states allow trade names, for now this remains the law in Texas. 

The State Bar of Texas Advertising Review Committee generally allows the use of acronyms as a firm name as long as “each letter in the acronym is derived from a surname” of a lawyer in the firm.  However, any acronym that is misleading or violates other advertising provisions is prohibited.  The Committee has specifically stated that “WIN LLP” would be prohibited because it could create unjust expectations in violation of Rule 7.02(a)(3). 

Because option 2 is a trade name, it is prohibited under the current Rule 1.07.  Although option 1 looks like a trade name, it is nonetheless permissible because it is the last name of a partner in the firm.  Option 4 is an improper acronym, while option 3 is permissible acronym.  The correct answer is E. 

NOTE:  You will have the chance to weigh in on the propriety of trade names should be allowed for Texas law firm in February when the State Bar holds a referendum on a series of proposed changes to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.  The new proposed Rule 7.01(c) would remove the current restriction on all trade names and allow them as long as they are not “false or misleading.”  The proposed changes can be found online at texasbar.com/rulesvote.  Please vote in February. 

Bluebook Citation

A Law Firm by Any Other Name . . .: Ethics Question of the Month - November 2020, Texas Center for Legal Ethics (2020), from https://legalethicstexas.com/ethics-question-of-the-month/ethics-question-of-the-month-november-2020/ (last visited Jun 16, 2024)