Is it permissible to include on your letterhead the name of an attorney with whom you consult regularly – but who is licensed only in Virginia – if you add the limitation “of counsel” or “consulting counsel?”
No, according to RPC 25.
But what if your attorney-consultant friend is licensed in North Carolina, not Virginia, and practices in another town? Is it then okay to indicate an “of counsel” relationship?
Yes, under certain conditions, says RPC 85:
“[T]he ‘of counsel’ designation (or one of its variants) is appropriate when there is a close, regular and personal relationship between the lawyer and the law firm. Thus, relationships that involve only one case or matter, that involve only occasional collaborative efforts among otherwise unrelated lawyers or firms, or that primarily involve only the forwarding of legal business would not satisfy the requirements for the use of the ‘of counsel’ appellation. The critical consideration is the nature of the relationship and the adherence to the rules applicable to conflicts of interest and confidential information.”
Navigating the ethical considerations of firm name, signage and letterhead can be tricky. Here is a little test to sharpen your skills (answers appear below):
- May attorneys who share office space represent opposing parties in the same case?
- May an attorney who is also a real estate broker list both designations on the same letterhead and operate both businesses from the same office?
- Can attorneys hold themselves out as having a doctorate degree?
- May nonlawyers be listed on letterhead?
- Is it ethical to keep a former member’s surname in the firm name if that member is continuing to practice with another firm?
- Does the URL for your firm website have to include words that identify the site as belonging to a law firm, provided the URL is not otherwise misleading?
- Is it okay for lawyers who have shared the same office space for 25 years to designate themselves as practicing together (i.e., “Smith & Jones”)?
- May you continue to include the name of a retired or deceased principal in your firm name?
- Can your letterhead list a firm member who is not licensed in North Carolina?
- If the URL for your firm website is more than a minor variation of your firm name, is it a trade name that must be registered with the State Bar?
As with all matters of ethics, the devil is in the details. If you have specific questions about any of the above topics, go to the source rules and opinions. Read them carefully. If you are still uncertain about what to do, contact the State Bar for guidance before going forward.
- Yes (see CPR 274)
- Yes (see CPR 307)
- No (see RPC 5)
- Yes (see RPC 126)
- No (see 2006 FEO 20)
- No (see 2005 FEO 14)
- No (see Comment 4 to Rule 7.5)
- Yes (see Comment 1 to Rule 7.5)
- Yes (see Comment 2 to Rule 7.5)
- Yes (see Rule 7.5)
- NC State Bar RPC 25 https://www.ncbar.gov/for-lawyers/ethics/adopted-opinions/rpc-25/
- NC State Bar RPC 85 https://www.ncbar.gov/for-lawyers/ethics/adopted-opinions/rpc-85/
- NC State Bar 2005 FEO 14 https://www.ncbar.gov/for-lawyers/ethics/adopted-opinions/2005-formal-ethics-opinion-14/
- NC State Bar Rule 7.5 https://www.ncbar.gov/for-lawyers/ethics/rules-of-professional-conduct/rule-75-firm-names-and-letterheads/