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Like any other business, the name a firm chooses is vital to their success. It’s how clients will find you, remember you, and recommend you. Recently, some law firms have begun to move away from the “Partner Name, Pardner Name & Partner Nane” convention, because let’s face it: I misspelled two of those words and more than a few people probably didn’t notice.
For attorneys, it’s not as easy as pulling a name out of a hat. Rules of professional responsibility come into play, and different states require a different approach.
The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct allow for firms to use “trade names,” i.e., something other than the names of the people practicing at the firm. As a general rule, the name cannot convey a false or misleading message about the lawyer or their services. This issue often comes up in one of two ways:
The Model Rules used to address these situations in Rule 7.5; however, the ABA deleted the rule in 2018 to encourage more consistency between jurisdictions. However, many states still employ similar standards. Others, like New York, do not allow trade names for law firms at all.
Geographic identifiers are one of the most common sticking points in law firm naming. For example, a firm called “Fairview Legal Clinic,” might make consumers think the firm is associated with the city of Fairview’s government. Some states will allow them so long as there is a disclaimer to clear up any misleading associations, others don’t mind.
Comment 5 to Rule 7.1 of the Model Rules briefly touches on names of partners who are either deceased or no longer associated with the firm. And again, it all turns on whether the public might be misled. If the firm is named for a deceased lawyer who was not associated with the firm, you’ve got a problem. Otherwise, names of partners who have died or retired generally can stay. When partners leave for another position, the name usually has to go.
The Model Rules offer a helpful jumping off point for law firm naming conventions. However, it’s always a good idea to check the rules in your jurisdiction for any variations.