By Michael Dayton
For years, the State Bar has required law firms to register any trade names they use in their advertising.
Now, a proposed ethics opinion could extend that rule to Web addresses, and that has the potential to affect dozens of law firms.
The bottom line: firms would have to register their URLs as trade names if they were anything more than a "minor variation" of the firm's official name.
Proposed 2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 8 will be published for public comment through October, when it could come up for a final vote by the State Bar's governing body.
The ethics ruling, if adopted, would have a broad impact, says Mark Ishman of Durham.
Like many other lawyers who are marketing savvy, Ishman uses a Web address with a legal buzzword to direct Internet traffic to his home page. Type in "Cyberlawattorney.com" and you'll be directed to his Web site, which boasts of an Internet and e-commerce practice.
Law firms that use a shortened version of their name as a Web site address, or the firm's initials followed by the word "law," would not have to register, according to Bar assistant director Alice Mine.
"We're not looking for anyone to get approval when the Web address is a variation of the firm name — for example, a derivative of the 'Law Offices of Smith and Jones,'" she said.
Ethics Rule 7.5(a) permits the use of a trade name "if it does not imply a connection with a government agency or with a public or charitable legal services organization and is not false or misleading."
Every trade name must be registered with the Bar. More than 200 are currently on file, with some dating back to the 1980s (see sidebar).
The earliest trade name on record, Accident and Injury Law Center, was filed on Feb. 16, 1988 by Fayetteville attorney Clay A. Brumbaugh. He retired last year but the firm continues to use that trade name in its advertising.
Three new trade names were filed last week, Bar records show.
However, registering URLs as trade names has never been explicitly required until the latest proposal.
Under the ethics scenario submitted to the Bar, an attorney setting up a Web site wanted to use a URL — short for "Uniform Resource Locator" — that was different from his law firm name.
His question to the Bar: did he have to register the URL as a trade name?
The answer: Yes.
The comment to Rule 7.5 "clearly contemplates that a URL may be a trade name for a firm," the opinion states. "[I]f a URL for a law firm's Web site is more than a minor variation on the official name of the firm, it must be registered with the State Bar."
Lawyers say the rationale behind the ruling is a good one: preventing the use of trade names that might confuse or deceive the public.
"I understand the Bar's motivation," says attorney Lee Rosen with the Rosen Law Firm in Raleigh. "Their job is to protect consumers, and they want them to know who they're dealing with."
However, the ethics ruling is likely to create headaches for firms like Rosen's, which has registered dozens of URLs as a marketing tool.
"We have 50 or 100 URLs," says Rosen. "We own lots of names like 'North Carolina Child Custody.' We came up with a list of names that we might want to use down the road, and we bought a ton of them."
The firm uses different URLs to gauge the effectiveness of a marketing campaign, he says.
"For instance, we did a series of billboards in Raleigh using 'NC Collaborates' to test a slogan about collaborative divorce," Rosen says. "We've used 10 or 12 URLs in different tests. For example, we used 'Cary Divorce' in the Cary phone book to attract traffic to that URL.
"So this new ethics ruling could be kind of a pain for a firm that is doing much of that," he says. "However, I could see where the ruling would be consistent with registering trade names because you are in effect using that as your name."
The Rosen Law Firm lists its name and address in every ad, as required under Bar rules.
"Even when we're using some unusual URL for testing, we're still advertising with our firm name so there's not any confusion to the consumer," he says.
— Questions or comments may be directed to Mike.Dayton@nc.lawyersweekly.com.
This article appeared in the August 17, 2005, edition of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly.
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