Editor's Note: This opinion was originally published as RPC 85 (Revised).
Of Counsel Relationships Between Lawyers in Different Towns
Opinion rules that an "of counsel" relationship may exist between lawyers practicing in different towns if the professional relationship is close, regular and personal and the designation is not otherwise false or misleading.
May an attorney with an office in one town in North Carolina properly serve as "of counsel" to a law firm in another town while maintaining his own practice?
If so, would the answer be different if both towns were in the same county?
An attorney may be designated "of counsel" to a North Carolina law firm when the relationship between the two is a close, regular and personal relationship for the practice of law and this designation is not otherwise false or misleading.
Over the years there has been a proliferation of variants of the term "of counsel," generally where there is a holding out to the world at large about some general and continuous relationship between the lawyers and law firms in question. In RPC 34, it was recognized that the term could be properly applied to a relationship characterized as a "close, in-house association," suggesting, perhaps, that lawyers and firms in different towns should not use the term "of counsel" to describe their relationship. However, the appropriateness of the "of counsel" designation does not turn solely upon the location of the parties' offices, nor does it turn solely on the amount of time spent in those offices. Rather, the "of counsel" designation (or one of its variants) is appropriate when there is a close, regular and personal relationship between the lawyer and the law firm. Thus, relationships that involve only one case or matter, that involve only occasional collaborative efforts among otherwise unrelated lawyers or firms, or that primarily involve only the forwarding of legal business would not satisfy the requirements for the use of the "of counsel" appellation. The critical consideration is the nature of the relationship and the adherence to the rules applicable to conflicts of interest and confidential information. In no event may "of counsel" be used unless the usage is consistent with the rules pertaining to false and misleading communications (Rule 2.1) or firm names and letterheads (Rule 2.3). Any pertinent jurisdictional limitations on the lawyer's entitlement to practice must also be indicated.