Proposed Opinion Cautions Law Firms About Using URL With Ex-Member’s Name

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By Joan C. Rogers

Feb. 4 — A two-person law firm from which one member has withdrawn to practice at a different firm need not abandon the firm's URL that includes both lawyers' names, if its continued use of the URL does not give web visitors the false impression that the departed member is no longer in practice, according to a proposed opinion from the Virginia bar's ethics committee (Virginia State Bar Standing Comm. on Legal Ethics, Proposed Op. 1873, 1/22/14).

The proposed opinion rules out the idea that the firm can avoid all ethics problems by automatically redirecting visitors from the firm's old website to its new website without any explanation. It also nixes the option of merely posting a notice on the old website that the firm has a new name and website because of the former member's withdrawal. Both of those alternatives are misleading without the additional information that the former member is still in practice elsewhere, according to the opinion.

The committee is asking for comment on the proposed opinion by Feb. 28.

Greener Pastures

The proposed opinion addresses a hypothetical situation in which lawyers Smith and Jones practiced together in the firm Smith & Jones P.C., which used the URL smithjones.com. After Smith left the firm and joined a different practice, Jones legally changed the firm's name to Jones Law Office P.C. and established a new website, joneslawoffice.com.

Jones proposes that anyone who attempts to access smithjones.com will be automatically redirected to joneslawoffice.com.

In the alternative, he envisions posting a notice on the smithjones.com website stating that Smith & Jones P.C. has now become the Jones Law Office due to Smith's withdrawal from the firm. The notice would provide the date of Smith's withdrawal and a link to joneslawoffice.com.

Needn't Jettison Old Domain Name

The committee noted that the firm's name cannot include the name of the departed partner who has joined another firm, because Rule 7.5 of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct allows lawyers to state or imply that they practice in a partnership only when they truly do.

But that rule does not require that the firm's domain name and URL that contain the former partner's name must be abandoned as soon as the partner leaves the firm, the panel found.

Even after the firm name changes, the committee explained, the domain name/URL will have value to former clients or others who are searching for the firm and are unaware of the name change. Because search results depend partly on an individual user's search history and other historical factors, a search for “Smith” or “Jones” may lead to smithjones.com even after Smith's departure and the resulting firm name change, it pointed out.

Automatically redirecting users to the firm's new URL would be misleading without any notice that the departed partner remains in practice.Virginia Proposed Ethics Op. 1873

For these reasons, the committee found that requiring the firm to immediately stop using its old domain name and URL upon Smith's exit would not serve the interests of the public, including former and potential clients, or the interests of the lawyers who built up the firm.

Designation Can't Mislead

On the other hand, Jones's proposed alternatives for handling the old URL are misleading, the committee found.

According to the opinion, a domain name/URL containing the firm's name is a “professional designation” for purposes of Rule 7.5(a). That rule forbids professional designations that violate Rule 7.1, which in turn prohibits lawyers from making false or misleading communications about themselves or their services.

These rules allow the firm to put a notice on its old website to explain why smithjones.com is no longer the Smith & Jones website.

However, Jones's proposed notice that Smith & Jones “has now become” the Jones Law Office is misleading unless it also specifies that Smith continues to practice law, the committee said. Without this additional information, the notice implies that Smith may no longer be available to represent clients and that the clients of Smith & Jones will be represented by Jones, the opinion explains.

For the same reason, the panel found that an automatic redirect from smithjones.com to joneslawoffice.com is misleading without additional explanation—either as part of the redirecting process or on the joneslawoffice.com website—to prevent the mistaken impression that Smith may not be available for continued representation and that Jones may be the only remaining option for representation.

Even if Jones has the legal right to control the smithjones.com URL, redirecting traffic to joneslawoffice.com is appropriate only if joneslawoffice.com or a page visible during the redirecting process explains the change from Smith & Jones to Jones Law Office and that Smith continues to practice law in a different firm, the committee said.

Jones may not impede clients' choice of counsel by refusing to provide information about the change in the name and composition of the firm, the committee said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joan C. Rogers in Washington at jrogers@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kirk Swanson at kswanson@bna.com

Full text of proposed opinion at http://www.vsb.org/docs/1873_1-22-14.pdf.

The bar's request for comments is at http://www.vsb.org/site/regulation/public-comment-leo1873.

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