Law firms no longer have to be known by an alphabet soup of partners’ names, but they can’t call themselves "alpha" firms either.
That’s the nub of Thursday’s long-awaited New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that law firms can adopt trade names as long as they don’t include misleading, comparative or superlative terms.
Thus, the Pennsylvania-based Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation, which operates three offices in New Jersey, has to drop the "alpha" — which suggests priority or primacy — but can otherwise use its trade name, with the moniker of a New Jersey partner appended.
Examples of proper nomenclature: "Millburn Tax Law Associates, John Smith, Esq." or "Millburn Personal Injury Group, John Smith, Esq."
But forget about using "Best Tax Lawyers" or "Tax Fixers."
The unanimous court said it was directing amendment of Rule of Professional Conduct 7.5 to bring New Jersey into conformity with at least 40 other states that permit trade names with no apparent catastrophic effects.
"On balance, we have become convinced that trade names need not be forbidden in New Jersey and that we should align our law firms’ naming options more in keeping with our sister states’ recognition that use of trade names can be incorporated in the profession without harm to the public," Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the court.
Amended RPC 7.5 will allow a law firm name that "describes the nature of the firm’s legal practice in terms that are accurate, descriptive, and informative, but not misleading, comparative, or suggestive of the ability to obtain results." The trade name must be accompanied by the name of the managing attorney.
Additionally, a firm that includes the phrase "legal services" in its name must inform clients that it is not affiliated with any governmental, quasi-governmental or nonprofit provider, such as Legal Services of New Jersey. And the phrase "Legal Aid" is prohibited outright.
The issue seems to have caused the court some consternation, as the justices heard oral arguments in the case three times over a span of four years.
In 2007, the court’s Committee on Attorney Advertising, in Advisory Opinion 711, found that the Alpha Center’s name violated extant RPC 7.5, which says law firms generally must be named after the lawyers who run them, and RPC 7.1, which prohibits advertising that raises misleading expectations.
"The word ‘alpha’ does not describe the lawyers in the firm and if it were meant to characterize the services provided by the lawyers it may be viewed as improperly comparative under RPC 7.1(a)(3)," the opinion said, adding that merely appending a managing partner’s name would not cure the problem.
The committee said it was without power to consider Alpha Center’s argument that the restriction on the use of its name violated of the First Amendment, and suggested petitioning the court.
In Thursday’s ruling, the court said it did not have to reach the constitutional issue since it was deciding the case based on the public policy ground of ensuring the public is not subjected to false or misleading advertising.
The court said it would establish a committee of lawyers and other interested parties to determine how to implement the changes to RPC 7.5. Among the issues to be considered:
• whether trade names should be registered and thus receive pre-approval;
• whether fees should be charged for registration;
• whether firms that use the names of dead or retired partners must register them as trade names; and
• whether trade names can be registered, and thereby reserved, if they are not going to be used immediately.
Regarding the Alpha Center’s petition, LaVecchia said the court reviewed several dictionaries, which defined alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, as "first of anything" or "something that is first." She concluded "the word adds no informative content other than serving the impermissible purpose of invoking the notion of primacy."
Her opinion did not mention another plausible benefit of the name: that "alpha" puts a firm near the top of alphabetical listings and directories, such as the Yellow Pages.
Metuchen solo David Rubin, who represented the amicus N.J. State Bar Association in its efforts to keep RPC 7.5 at status quo, says, "It’s clear that the court looked at the experiences of other states and observed no problems in those other states." He stresses the rule still includes measures to protect the public from misleading or false advertising.
Alpha Center’s lawyer, Lumberton solo Robyn Hill, former chief counsel to the court’s Disciplinary Review Board, says she believes the finding that "alpha" is misleading is "stretching the point."
Alpha Center’s president, Keila Gilbert, agrees. "I feel pretty strongly that our name is not misleading," she says. "We are going to review the opinion and speak to our attorney and determine what our next step will be."
Rubin says the combination of Thursday’s ruling and to the court’s decision in January to ease the "bona fide office" rule "will have a significant impact on the practice of law, especially among solos and small firms."
The case is In the Matter of the Letter Decision of the Committee on Attorney Advertising, Docket No. 47-2007, A-14-2008.