There are plenty of reasons for a law firm to use a trade name. Trade names can communicate your firm’s concentration or what’s unique about your practice more effectively and directly than a surname. For lawyers starting out as pure solo, a trade name makes it less immediately obvious that there’s just one lawyer in the firm, and for lawyers selling a practice, a recognized trade name can make the business more desirable to potential purchasers.
Yet even though naming a law practice should be simple, ethics rules complicate the process. Some jurisdictions adopt a similar approach to ABA Model Rule 7.5 which permits trade names so long as they aren’t deceptive. The ABA Model Rule commentary goes so far as to permit names like “The ABC Legal Clinic” so long as accompanied by a disclaimer to clarify that the entity is a private law firm and not affiliated with a legal aid organization. Other jurisdictions aren’t as tolerant – New York, in particular, has very strict and detailed prohibitions on use of trade names – or even affiliating with a group using a trade name (the Second Circuit invalidated some of these regulations).
I’d hoped to round up all state rules on trade names, but that proved a bit ambitious. But I’ve uploaded thirteen ethics opinions or commentaries from various states here to provide an overview of the ethics considerations involved. If you have a link to an ethics opinion or case in your jurisdiction, please post it in the comments and I’ll add it to the compendium.
Got an ethics question? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try to answer it. And stay tuned for the ethics service that will launch in the coming months.