New York State
on Professional Ethics
Topic Law Firm Name: Use of Lawyer’s First Name as Firm Name
Digest: A lawyer may not use
only a first name as the sole name of the lawyer’s firm.
Rules: 7.1, 7.5(b), 8.4(c).
inquirer is a New York lawyer who practices in both New York and other
jurisdictions. The inquirer’s surname,
we are told, is shared by a number of other firms in New York and other places
where the inquirer practices. To
distinguish the inquirer’s firm from these other firms, the inquirer proposes
to use only the inquirer’s first name – say, John or Jane – as the sole name of
the firm, as in John’s Law Offices LLC or The Jane Law Firm LLC. The inquirer asserts that this nomenclature
would not only serve to differentiate the firm from others bearing the
inquirer’s surname but also effect efficiencies – such as how the staff answers
telephone calls – with existing or prospective clients. The inquirer assures us that the inquirer’s
first name is the first name by which the inquirer is admitted to practice in
lawyer use only the lawyer’s first name as the name of the lawyer’s firm?
3. The answer is no – that lawyer may not use solely the
lawyer’s first name as the name of a law firm under the New York Rules of
Professional Conduct (the “Rules”).
7.5(b) provides, in pertinent part, that a “lawyer in private practice shall
not practice under a trade name, a name that is misleading as to the identity
of the lawyer or lawyers practicing under such name, or a firm name containing
names other than those of one or more of the lawyers in the firm.” “The prohibition against trade names is
broad, permitting use of little beyond the names of lawyers presently or
previously associated with the firm.”
N.Y. State 869 (2011) (lawyer may not use practice area in the name of
the law firm). This Rule “serves to protect the public from being deceived
about the identity, responsibility or status of the individuals using the
name.” N.Y. State 920 ¶ 3 (2012); accord, N.Y. State 732 (2000) (applying
prohibition on trade names in DR 2-102(B) of the New York Code of Professional
Responsibility (the “Code”), the predecessor of the Rules). "Using a name that is not the legal name
of one or more partners or former partners in the law firm constitutes use of a
‘trade name’ within the meaning of the predecessor to Rule 7.5(b).” N.Y. State 740 (2001) (applying the
Code). “This broad prohibition has been
applied to disallow firm names adding even limited terms to the names of the lawyers
in the firm.” N.Y. State 869.
recognize that here, the inquirer proposes to use the inquirer’s real first
name to identify the inquirer’s firm. We
have not previously had occasion to address this precise issue, nor can we find
any other authority that has done so.
Nevertheless, although the term "trade name" is not defined by the
Rules, we have written numerous opinions that provide useful guidance in
interpreting the meaning of that term. N.Y. State 948
¶ 3 (2012) (so noting). In N.Y.
State 948, for example, we concluded that a “law firm name may not include a variant on the lawyer's
name that is created by conjoining the lawyer's initials with an abbreviation
of the lawyer's surname.” Id. ¶ 7. In N.Y. State 920 ¶ 5, we opined that a
lawyer may not use a firm name comprised only of the lawyer’s initials. In N.Y. State 861 ¶ 4 (2011), we
considered the inclusion in a firm name of initials signifying the firm’s
practice area to constitute an impermissible trade name. In N.Y. State 740, decided under the
identical language in the Code, we said that a lawyer may not insert an
arbitrary letter in the firm name unconnected to the names of lawyers who
practiced there. Most recently, in N.Y.
State 1138 ¶ 7 (2017), we regarded the English translation of the
inquirer’s actual surname “more than a slight deviation from the inquirer’s
actual surname” and hence impermissible.
See N.Y. County 677 (1990) (firm name may not
include first name of one partner and contraction of surname of another
partner, as such a name would violate requirement that lawyers practice only
under names of lawyers in the firm).
6. Common to all these opinions – and to all the
opinions we can locate on the meaning of “trade name” – is the presumption
that, in requiring the use of only a lawyer’s name in the name of a law firm,
the Rules intend to refer to the lawyer’s (or lawyers’) surname(s). In our view, Rule 7.5(b) embeds an
understanding that a law firm’s name consists of surnames of lawyers who either
practice there or once did. We are
unaware of any authority or precedent that breaks from this pattern, and it
cannot be denied that, at the time the Rules and their predecessors were
adopted, the universal practice in this State was to confine the names of law
firms to the surnames of its current or former lawyers. We cannot ignore this context in
interpreting the meaning of “trade name.”
Rather, customary usage teaches us that the public in general and the
legal profession in particular expect that the name of a law firm reflects the
surnames of lawyers currently or formerly associated with the law firm. Cf. N.Y.
State 148 (1970) (under the pre-Code Canon of Ethics, relying on local custom
to determine that a firm may continue use of deceased partners in a firm name);
N.Y. State 70 (1968) (to the same effect); N.Y. State 45 (1967) (same); see also N.Y. State 622 n.3 (1991)
(citing the foregoing to reach the same result under the Code).
disrupt that expectation would, in our view, undermine Rule 7.5(b) and
therefore be misleading because of the universal convention on the use of
surnames in the names of law firms. See Rule 7.1(a); Rule 8.4(c). To us, any firm name that does not include
the surname(s) of lawyer(s) who either practice at the firm – or, “if otherwise
lawful,” as Rule 7.5(b) says, “the name or names of one or more deceased or retired
members of the firm or of a predecessor firm in a continuing line of
succession” – is inherently misleading.
This does not preclude the inclusion of the inquirer’s first name in the
name of the firm, provided the surname appears there as well. See N.Y.
State 1003 ¶ 9 (2014) (if not misleading, a lawyer may “drop his first
name to formulate a firm name that includes his middle initials and legal
note that our conclusion refers only to the name of the inquirer’s law
firm. Subject to the advertising
regulations of Rule 7.1, nothing in the Rules prohibits the inquirer from using
the inquirer’s first name as a motto, a means of branding, or other
advertising. Thus, the inquirer may use
only the inquirer’s first name in branding the inquirer’s law firm on websites
and other media to create a distinct identity, provided always that the
inquirer complies with Rule 7.1 and any other Rule regulating a lawyer’s
communications with the public. Rule
7.5, Cmt. ; Rule 7.1, Cmt.  (permissible to heighten brand awareness); see In re Von Wiegen,
63 N.Y.2d 163, 176-77 (1984) (allowing lawyer to accompany firm name with the
logo “The Country Lawyer”); N.Y. State 1017 ¶ 8 (2014) (use of the firm’s
initials in sponsoring a local sports team did not constitute an impermissible
use of a trade name); N.Y. State 937 ¶ 3 (2012) (firm may use firm logo on
promotional gifts). We likewise find no
obligation in the Rules that a law firm’s staff must use the firm’s full name
in responding to telephone calls. N.Y.
State 1017 ¶ 8 (allowing use of the firm’s initials in answering telephone
calls). There are, in short, various
ways for the inquirer to establish a unique identity for the inquirer’s law
firm and to differentiate the law firm from others that may contain the same
surname as the inquirer’s. Our point
here is that the use of a trade name, that is, one omitting the lawyer’s
surname, is neither consistent with Rule 7.5(b) nor longstanding expectations
about law firm names.
lawyer may not use only the lawyer’s first name as the name of the lawyer’s
firm but may use a first name, together with the lawyer’s surname, in the name
of the firm. A lawyer may use only the
lawyer’s first name in promoting the lawyer’s practice as a motto or branding
element consistent with the rules governing lawyer advertising.