Legal Ethics Corner

Ethics Corner is designed to present ethical issues that practitioners might well face on a daily basis. It is a service of the Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association for SDCBA members.  

Does Using “Law Offices” Raise the Same Concerns as “X & Associates” or “X Law Group”?

The last Ethics Corner regarding the use of names like “John Doe &  Associates” or “The Doe Law Group” by sole practitioners garnered a fair amount of interest from members of the SDCBA and its Legal Ethics Committee.  Among the questions raised was whether the use of the plural “Law Offices of John Doe” also exposes a member to the risk of discipline under our Rules of Professional Conduct.  As previously addressed, existing Rule 1-400 precludes deceptive, confusing or misleading communications and solicitations.  California’s proposed new Rule 7.5, which if approved by our Supreme Court would replace Rule 1-400, deals specifically with firm names, and provides that “Lawyers may state or imply that they practice in a partnership or other organization only when that is the fact.”   Proposed Rule 7.1 prohibits deceptive, confusing, or misleading communications just like Rule 1-400.

Though this author was unable to find any ethics opinions directly on point, unlike the use of “X & Associates” or “X Law Group,” it appears that the use of “Law Offices” provides much more room for interpretation.  Unlike the inherently misleading nature of a sole practitioner with no associates who identifies herself as “Jane Doe & Associates,” it would seem entirely possible for a sole practitioner to have more than one office, and thus properly designate himself/herself as “Jane Doe Law Offices” without deceiving or misleading potential clients.  Unlike the term “associate,” the term “office” is not defined in the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Websters.com defines “office” as “a room, set of rooms, or building where the business of a commercial or industrial organization or of a professional person is conducted.”   Does “offices” normally mean two separate physical locations where the attorney transacts business (e.g., San Diego and San Francisco offices, North County and South Bay offices) or just two offices within the same building or suite of buildings?  Does a home office count?  Alternatively, is it so generic that it communicates nothing more than at least one attorney practices law under that name?

The ultimate question is whether the lawyer’s use of the plural “offices” is likely to deceive, confuse or mislead the public by implying the lawyer is in practice with additional attorneys.  While the risk of discipline would be diminished by use of the singular “Law Office,” based on the basic definition of the term “office” it appears the use of “Law Offices” by a sole practitioner may not be subject to the same prohibitions as the use of terms like “Doe & Associates” or “Doe Law Group.”

--Jack R. Leer

**No portion of this summary is intended to constitute legal advice. Be sure to perform independent research and analysis.  Any views expressed are those of the author only and not of the SDCBA or its Legal Ethics Committee.**