Ethics Opinon 1975-9
June 13, 1975
SUBJECT: TELEPHONE DIRECTORY LISTINGS AND BRANCH OFFICES
May a local law firm and California law firm in another city with its nationally recognized partner have listings in the classified section of the local telephone directory with the same address and telephone number used for both the names of each firm and each individual partner of each firm?
Yes, the listings would be permissible, if the nonlocal California law firm with its nationally recognized partner does in fact practice and maintain a bona fide office locally, provided that there is no attempt by the local firm to solicit and provide services to the callers of the nonlocal firm and its nationally recognized partner.
STATUTES AND CANONS
Both Rule 2-103(A)(5) of the Rules of Professional Conduct of the State Bar of California and Canon 27 of the Canons of Professional Ethics of the American Bar Association proscribe the solicitation of professional employment by advertisement or otherwise and also limit the use of telephone directory listings as a form of advertising.
Rule 2-103(A)(5) partially states that a member may use:
"A listing of the office of a member of the State Bar or firm of which he is a member in the alphabetical and classified directories for the geographical area or areas in which the member of the State Bar resides or maintains offices or regularly practices law and in the community directory or guide for one or more cities or counties in which the member of the State Bar resides or maintains offices or regularly practices law; . . ."
The Committee on Professional Ethics of the State Bar of California in Opinion No. 1967-7 discussed the issue of listings by lawyers and law firms in out-of-town telephone directories. In this opinion the following excerpt hits the main issue of our question:
"The questions to be decided require consideration of both the situation and the motivation of the lawyer in placing the listing. Where the lawyer is practicing extensively in the community, whether or not he resides there or maintains an office there, the telephone listing is a convenience to the public and facilitates communication with the lawyer and no impropriety arises. On the other extreme, if the lawyer has not practiced in or has only professional contacts with a community, which community is outside the area in which his office is situated, the listing would be an improper attempt to advertise the lawyer or firm rather than an attempt to facilitate communication between persons using the telephone."
INFORMAL OPINION NO. 187
This Committee in Informal Opinion No. 187 dealt with the maintenance of branch offices. The opinion stated that:
"Whenever this Committee has sanctioned the maintenance of branch offices, they have been the bona fide branch office of the lawyer and not merely a fiction office for him, which is really the office of some other lawyer with whom he has no real connection."
Items mentioned that could be relevant in determining whether the office was a bona fide branch were:
(1) Is there a lease or sublease for the office?
(2) Is there a telephone for the office?
(3) Is the name of the lawyer on the building directory or office door?
(4) Is there someone qualified to transact business for the named attorney and on his behalf?
Usually the question of whether there is a bona fide branch office has been involved with the propriety of listings in law lists which are of the same nature as telephone directories. The common issue involved is unethical advertising and solicitation of clients.
INFORMAL OPINION NO. 732
In this opinion of the Standing Committee on Professional Ethics of the American Bar Association the factual situation was close to the question presented to us. The inquiry presented in Opinion No. 732 was whether a lawyer, who maintains an office under his individual name in town A where he resides and actually conducts a major part of his practice, could form a connection with a law firm in town B as a result of which he will be listed in the telephone directory of town B with the telephone number and address of the firm with which he is connected.
The above question could not be resolved without determining the factual purpose of the proposed listing and the intentions of the lawyer. There was one factual situation presented that involved a client in town B who called the telephone number given under the name of the lawyer of town A to request his legal services. Someone in the firm office in town B advised the lawyer was in town A and the client obtained his services, which were then performed not in town A but in town B. This factual situation was considered to present no ethical problems because the firm office in town B was in fact his office in that town.
Another example presented was where the lawyer of town A had no intention to conduct any active practice in town B and the purpose and intent of the listing was that those calling the number listed because of personal acquaintance with or confidence in the lawyer of town A would be informed that his services are not available in town B but that other members of the firm in town B are in a position to handle their legal business. Clearly, the lawyer of town A would merely be allowing his name to be used in a misleading manner, which would be unethical.
The issue is really a factual one as to whether the local law firm and the nationally recognized lawyer are acting ethically. If the nationally recognized lawyer is in fact actively practicing law locally and the purpose of his connection with the local firm is for the convenience of his clients, then it is the writer's opinion that his conduct is ethical and in compliance with the letter and spirit of Canon 27 and Rule 2-103 as related to advertising and solicitation of clients. There is no requirement in the Canon that a lawyer must limit his practice to one location. Telephone listings are a form of advertising but are considered ethical so long as they are being used for the purpose intended ¾ that of being a convenience for clients and other attorneys.
But if the purpose of the connection between the local firm and the nationally recognized lawyer is to feed the local firm with clients attracted by the name of the prominent lawyer or provide the prominent lawyer with a new source of clients by use of a local fictitious office, then in the Committee's opinion, the activities would be in violation of Canon 27 and Rule 2-103.
This opinion is advisory only. It is not binding upon the State Bar, the Board of Governors, its agents or employees.
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.