Ethics Opinon 1975-15
September 22, 1975
SUBJECT: SIGN IDENTIFYING BUILDING OR GROUP OF ATTORNEYS LOCATED IN BUILDING AS LAW CENTER
May a group of attorneys have a free-standing sign located at the front of its building which states "(name of city) Law Center" with the names of the individual attorneys listed below.
No. Such a sign constitutes a proscribed indirect solicitation of clientele and is misleading in its representation of the nature of the association under which the listed attorneys practice.
STATUTES AND CANONS
Rule 2-101 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits the soliciting of professional employment by advertising or otherwise. Canon 27 of the American Bar Association proscribes both direct and indirect solicitation of employment.
Rule 2-103(a)(3) of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a member of the State Bar shall not use office signs with the exception of signs which are in modest and dignified form, on or near the door of the office and in the building directly identifying the law office. Such sign cannot state the nature of the practice except as permitted under Rule 2-106 (relating to certified law specialists). Canon 33 of the American Bar Association provides that in the selection of a firm name, no false, misleading, assumed or trade name should be used.
The general rule is as stated in Formal Opinion No. 132 American Bar Association. "The test is whether the sign is intended and calculated to enable persons looking for a lawyer, already selected, to find him, or to attract the attention of persons who might be looking for a lawyer, although not for him. See also Drinker, Legal Ethics, pg. 231." In connection with the increasing number of legal services offices, American Bar Association Opinion No. 334 has modified this general rule somewhat in stating that publicity for a legal services office must be designed to acquaint the public with the availability of the office's services, not those of the individual attorneys.
Informal Opinion No. 373 has held the name "Doe and Doe Associates" Improper; No. 374 "Householders Association" improper; No. 376 "Northern Law Clinic" improper; and No. 377 the addition of "and Co." to a name as improper, all under Canon 33. Informal Opinion No. 441 considered the sign "County Law Building" as being misleading and therefore violative of Canon 33 because it would tend to be misleading as a representation of some official character. Contrast, however, Informal Opinion No. 890 which found no impropriety in the display of an American Flag in front of an office building in which the only occupant was a law office. In this connection numerous opinions prohibit the showing of a partnership where none exists. (e.g. Informal No. 966.] Los Angeles Bar Association Opinion No. 145 held that it would be professionally unethical for a lawyer to carry on a private practice in the ordinary manner to designate his offices by a sign reading "Legal Clinic." The reasoning used was that not only did the sign tend to solicit clientele but it also was misleading in that the term "clinic" imports an institution which services at no or nominal cost.
Ethical Consideration 2-11 recognizes that the use of a trade name or an assumed name by a lawyer may mislead laymen concerning the identity, responsibility and status of those practicing under said trade name. Accordingly an attorney in private practice should practice only under his own name, the name of the lawyer employing him, or if permitted by law, the name of a professional legal corporation which should be clearly designated as such.
The term "_________ Law Center" imports either or both of two associations: One, an official association with the city whose name is on the sign; and two, an association with some sort of nonprofit legal services entity. It is assumed that the listed attorneys have no such associations and the writers, therefore, believe the sign misleading and violative of Canon 33 as well as Ethical Consideration 2-11. Also, the existence of such a sign which does not correctly identify the firm name, but is calculated to call attention to the services of attorneys listed on said sign is, in the opinion of the writers, a prohibited solicitation under Canon 27.
This opinion is advisory only. It is not binding upon the State Bar, the Board of Governors, its agents or employees.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The State Bar has issued proposed changes to the Rules involving advertising; however, the amendments, if approved by the Supreme Court, would not change, in the opinion of this Committee, the conclusion of this opinion.
Disclaimer: This opinion was issued by the Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association. It is advisory only and is not binding upon any member of the SDCBA, any other member of the State Bar of California, the State Bar of California or its Board of Governors, or any persons or tribunals charged with regulatory responsibilities. The SDCBA, its officers, directors, agents, and the Legal Ethics Committee members assume no responsibility or liability in rendering this opinion.