A lawyer got disciplined in Ohio July 6 for using the name of a sitting Ohio Supreme Court justice in his law firm name ( Ashtabula Cty. Bar Ass’n v. Brown , 2017 BL 231995, Ohio, No. 2016-1147, 7/6/17 ).
The case spotlights apparent top-level unawareness of the ethics rules governing law firm names. The lawyer got permission from his ex-partner, Justice William O’Neill, before using his name, according to the per curiam opinion.
After Thomas C. Brown’s admission to the Ohio bar in 1981, he and O’Neill practiced together at the O’Neill & Brown Law Office until 1997.
In July 2015 Brown began using their old firm name with O’Neill’s consent. He installed a sign outside his office touting it as “ONeill & Brown Law Office (EST 1981),” and he began using business cards bearing the firm name “O’Neill & Brown Law Office.”
When the bar association in Ashtabula County notified O’Neill that the sign violated the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct, he told Brown to remove his name.
O’Neill became an Ohio Supreme Court justice in 2013. Before that, he was an Ohio appeals court judge from 1997 until 2007. He didn’t participate in the disciplinary case against his former partner.
The court held that Brown’s use of O’Neill’s name in his firm name violated Rule 7.1 (false or misleading communication about lawyer or lawyer’s services), Rule 7.5(a) (false or misleading firm name), and Rule 7.5(c) (using name of lawyer who holds public office in law firm’s name while lawyer isn’t practicing with firm).
However, the court split 4-3 on what sanction to impose, as well as what difference it made that Brown got O’Neill’s permission.
The four-member majority—Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French, Judge Tim McCormack, sitting by designation for O’Neill, and Justice R. Patrick DeWine—found that it would be too lenient to impose a six-month stayed suspension, as recommended by the court’s professional conduct board.
The majority acknowledged that the board found several mitigating factors, including the fact that O’Neill participated in the decision to use the “O’Neill & Brown Law Office” name on the sign. However, it decided that in light of several aggravating factors, Brown should receive a two-year suspension, stayed on condition that he not use the “O’Neill & Brown” firm name.
Brown had a selfish motive for using O’Neill’s name to enhance his own reputation, the majority said. It also cited Brown’s marred disciplinary record, his failure to appreciate the wrongful nature of his conduct, and his continued use of O’Neill’s name for months after getting notice that it might be professional misconduct.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented, saying the appropriate sanction is an indefinite suspension. The fact that Brown obtained consent from O’Neill is an aggravating factor because judges are prohibited from lending their names to law firms, he said.
O’Donnell said that Brown created an appearance of impropriety by representing that he was practicing law in partnership with a sitting justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.
“This deceitful conduct demands a serious sanction involving time out from the practice of law in order to protect the public from being misled about the nature of a professional legal engagement with Brown,” O’Donnell said.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Justice Patrick F. Fischer joined O’Donnell’s dissent.
Bar Counsel Harold E. Specht Jr., Jefferson, Ohio, represented the Ashtabula County bar association. Thomas Brown, of Geneva, Ohio, appeared pro se.
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