Jackson Walker trial partner Curt Langley of Houston was more than surprised to learn recently that his headshot appears on the website of Houston estate planning firm Walsh & Padilla, where he is identified as name partner Jonathan Walsh.
Langley quickly sprung into action, setting off a series of events that include the filing of a lawsuit by the Houston Bar Association alleging Walsh & Padilla is a fictitious firm, the launching of an investigation into the website by the Supreme Court of Texas Unauthorized Law Committee, and the issuing of a consumer warning from the State Bar of Texas.
“This one is really egregious,” said John Sirman, legal counsel for the State Bar of Texas. “These scams are frustrating and are often overseas people and hard to reach and shut down.”
The bar warns people to check with its membership department if they have any questions about the legitimacy of a Texas lawyer.
Langley said a man in Canada contacted him June 15 to tell him that a fictitious firm in Houston was using his likeness on its website. The man’s father had received a letter from Walsh & Padilla. “He gave me the web address. I immediately checked it, and yes, that’s what was happening,” Langley said.
Langley said he promptly told the general counsel of his firm and also contacted Alistair Dawson, a partner at the trial firm Beck Redden in Houston who is president of the Houston Bar Association. On June 19, the Houston Bar Association and the Houston Bar Foundation filed a suit against Walsh & Padilla, alleging the firm’s website improperly includes their logos and their names.
In addition to Langley’s photo, the website also featured the photos of six other lawyers from Texas and California who were misidentified as attorneys at Walsh & Padilla, according to the petition filed in Houston Bar Association v. Walsh & Padilla.
The Houston Bar also alleges in the petition that the Walsh & Padilla website is a “carbon copy” of the website of Houston firm Hayes & Wilson, and the photo of Hayes & Wilson partner Lisa Wilson appeared on the site, identified as Lisa Wilson.
William Hayes, a partner at Hayes & Wilson, said his firm also received calls from a handful of individuals in Canada about the Walsh & Padilla website. The firm’s priority, he said, is getting the website down so individuals are not defrauded. “We don’t want to be associated with anything scam-related,” he said.
According to the petition, “Walsh & Padilla is operating this sham law firm website in an effort to defraud elderly individuals. …Walsh & Padilla has mailed letters and sent emails to elderly individuals that claim Walsh & Padilla will help them recover unclaimed life insurance proceeds in other countries if they provide identifying and financial information.”
The plaintiffs seek court orders to prevent Walsh & Padilla, or anyone acting with it, to operate the website or any similar website. On June 19, Judge Elaine Palmer of Harris County signed a temporary restraining order preventing the continued operation and hosting of the website walshpadillalaw.com and ordering the defendants to take down the site immediately.
The website was still up until late June 29, but came down after Mary Kate Raffetto, an associate at Beck Redden working on the suit with Dawson, sent copies of the TRO on June 20 to several email addresses at the South African hosting company. “I sent it to the support team, the sales team, all of the generic website emails,” Raffetto said.
The Walsh & Padillo website was quickly taken down after that.
This is not the first time law firms have discovered fake websites that appropriate their names, their websites, or photos of their lawyers. In China, at least three well-known international firms—two that are part of the Am Law 100 and one that is a based in the U.K.—have had their names appropriated in the past two years.
In Texas, the plaintiffs bring libel, trademark infringement and invasion of privacy by appropriation of name or likeness causes of action against Walsh & Padilla.
Langley said the Houston Bar Association and the Houston Bar Foundation filed the petition alleging unauthorized use of the logos because it was the “cleanest and quickest route” to obtaining a court order to remove the website. “If that successfully takes the site down, that will be a great result. If it doesn’t, then I would assume myself and the others depicted on there would want to take actions to get the site taken down,” he said.
Langley’s photo appears with the “Jonathan Walsh” name on the fictitious firm website. “As concerning as it is to me, I do feel kind of lucky that they didn’t use my name,” he said.
A telephone message left at Walsh & Padilla was not returned.
Dawson said it is his understanding that the website’s domain hosting company is in South Africa.
Leland De La Garza, chairman of the state Supreme Court’s Unauthorized Practice of Law committee and a shareholder at Hallett & Perrin in Dallas, said the committee received a complaint about the website June 19 and he assigned it to the Houston subcommittee to investigate.
He said the apparently fake website is a very unusual situation for the UPL committee to investigate, but the subcommittee is looking into it.
“This is more of a fraud than the unauthorized practice of law because the object is to misrepresent and take their money than actually provide a service that is the unauthorized practice of law,” De La Garza said. “This is quite egregious. …They are not lawyers and they are stealing the IDs of lawyers”