In the Matter of the Letter Decision of the Committee on Attorney Advertising, A-14 September Term 2008; Supreme Court; opinion by LaVecchia, J.; decided March 14, 2013. On petition for review of a decision of the Supreme Court Committee on Attorney Advertising. DDS No. 04-1-9307 [28 pp.]
The court addresses whether use of the trade name Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation, P.C., which consists of lawyers and supportive personnel engaged in divorce mediation services, violates RPC 7.5; whether the policy on law firm names in New Jersey should be broadened by amending RPC 7.5 to permit trade names within certain limits; and whether the center’s trade name is consistent with the current or proposed rules.
The Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation, P.C., operates in multiple states. In 2007, the Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics issued Advisory Opinion 711, concluding that "Center for Divorce Mediation, P.C." is not a permissible law firm trade name under RPC 7.5. The center sought review from the Committee on Attorney Advertising (CAA) on the use of its name in conjunction with the name of the attorney principally responsible for the office. The center argued that the restriction on its trade name violated the First Amendment. The CAA advised the center that the use of its trade name, even accompanied by an attorney’s name, was not permitted.
The CAA stated that the words "Center for Divorce Mediation" describe the nature of the practice; and "Alpha," as the first letter of the Greek alphabet, may be interpreted to mean that it is the "first center for divorce mediation." The CAA determined that because neither described the lawyers in the firm, they are not permissible "additional language" under RPC 7.5(e); "Alpha" may be viewed as improperly comparative under RPC 7.1(a)(3).
The court granted the center’s petition for review.
In the course of its review, the court undertook a re-examination of RPC 7.5 in light of the widespread acceptance of the use of trade names by law firms around the country. The court proposed for comment an amended version of RPC 7.5. As proposed, the amendment would allow use of a trade name "so long as it describes the nature of the firm’s legal practice in terms that are accurate, descriptive, and informative, but not misleading, comparative, unprofessional, or suggestive of the ability to obtain results. Such trade names should be accompanied by the name of the attorney who is responsible for the management of the organization."
After receiving few comments on the proposal, the court set this matter down for reargument and requested the participation of the New Jersey State Bar Association. Having heard argument and having considered the comments received on the proposal to amend RPC 7.5, the court concludes that its policy on law firm trade names should be broadened to allow use of trade names within certain limits.
Held: RPC 7.5 should be amended to permit a law firm trade name so long as it describes the nature of the legal practice in terms that are accurate, descriptive and informative, but not misleading, comparative or suggestive of the ability to obtain results. The name must be accompanied by the name of the attorney responsible for the management of the organization. The term "Alpha" in the center’s name is impermissible under revised RPC 7.5 and current RPC 7.1. The remainder of the name, coupled with the name of a managing New Jersey attorney, satisfies revised RPC 7.5.
The center argues that RPC 7.5 is unconstitutional under the First Amendment and lacks synchronicity with the trend in most other states to allow trade name use. The State Bar Association and the CAA counter that RPC 7.5 is constitutional and no change is necessary.
Most states now allow use of trade names by law firms without any report of adverse impact to the public. The court also recognizes the changing and multijurisdictional nature of the legal profession. As a matter of policy and without any need to reach the First Amendment issue under current RPC 7.5, the court amends RPC 7.5 in recognition that use of trade names can be incorporated in the profession without harm to the public. The new rule provides a balance, permitting use of a trade name — but only when accompanied by an attorney’s name — and imposing additional limitations on the descriptive language. A trade name may not be misleading or contain inherently superlative or comparative language. The express prohibitions in revised RPC 7.5 are consistent with RPC 7.1′s restrictions on communications concerning a lawyer’s service.
The court amends RPC 7.5(e) to permit use of a law firm trade name "so long as it 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. Such trade names shall be accompanied by the name of the attorney who is responsible for the management of the organization."
A committee will be established to address implementation of amended RPC 7.5.
Under new RPC 7.5, the center’s use of the term "Alpha" adds no informative content and is confusing and invokes the notion of primacy. It is impermissible under the standards animating revised RPC 7.5 and current RPC 7.1. The rest of the name, with the name of a managing New Jersey attorney, satisfies revised RPC 7.5.
The advisory opinion issued by the Committee on Attorney Advertising is affirmed as modified.
Chief Justice Rabner; Justices Albin, Hoens, and Patterson; and Judges Rodríguez and Cuff, both temporarily assigned, join in Justice LaVecchia‘s opinion.
For appellant Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation — Robyn M. Hill. For the Committee on Attorney Advertising — Kim D. Ringler and Tara Adams Ragone, Deputy Attorneys General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General; Andrea M. Silkowitz, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel). For amicus curiae New Jersey State Bar Association — David B. Rubin (Kevin P. McCann, President; Susan A. Feeney on the letter brief).