Use of Suspended Lawyer’s Name in Law Firm Name
Opinion rules that the name of a lawyer who is under an active suspension must be removed from the firm name within a reasonable period of time.
Lawyer is a named partner in a law firm. Pursuant to an order issued by the Disciplinary Hearing Commission, Lawyer is actively suspended from the practice of law. Must Lawyer’s name be removed from the law firm name during the suspension period?
Yes. A suspended lawyer may not be associated with her former firm during the suspension period. The Regulations for Professional Corporations and Professional Limited Liability Companies Practicing Law state that if a shareholder in a professional corporation or member of a professional limited liability company becomes legally disqualified to render professional services in North Carolina, the name of the professional corporation or professional limited liability company shall be promptly changed to eliminate the name of such shareholder or member, and such shareholder or member shall promptly dispose of her shares of stock in the corporation or interest in the professional limited liability company. 27 N.C. Admin. Code 1E, Rule .0102. In addition, Rule 5.5(b) of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer who is not admitted to practice law in North Carolina from holding out to the public or otherwise representing that the lawyer is admitted to practice law in this jurisdiction.
Therefore, within a reasonable timeframe from the effective date of the active disciplinary suspension not to exceed three months and until the active suspension ends, the suspended lawyer’s name must be removed from the firm name, firm signage, letterhead, all forms of advertisement, and the firm website. The law firm is reminded to amend the articles of incorporation with the North Carolina secretary of state and, if the suspended lawyer’s name is contained in the firm’s website URL, to change or redirect the URL to a URL that does not contain the suspended lawyer’s name. (If a URL with appropriate is not available, the law firm may adopt a trade name for its URL provided the URL is registered with and approved by the North Carolina State Bar. 2005 FEO 8.)
Does the answer to Inquiry #1 change if Lawyer is under a stayed disciplinary suspension?
Yes. If Lawyer’s disciplinary suspension is stayed, she is permitted to practice law. Therefore, inclusion of Lawyer’s name in the firm name, firm signage, letterhead, all forms of advertisement, and the firm website is not false or misleading in violation of Rule 7.1, and does not violate other State Bar rules.
Should the suspension become active and Lawyer is no longer permitted to practice law, Lawyer’s name must be removed from the firm name, firm signage, letterhead, all forms of advertisement, and the firm website. See Opinion #1.
Lawyer is administratively suspended for failure to pay State Bar membership dues and/or failure to satisfy the continuing legal education (CLE) requirements of State Bar membership. Must Lawyer’s name be removed from the firm name?
Yes. Whenever a member of the North Carolina State Bar fails to fulfill an administrative obligation of membership in the State Bar, the member is subject to administrative suspension. 27 N.C. Admin. Code 1D, Rule .0903. However, unlike a disciplinary suspension, administrative suspensions can be cured within a relatively short period of time. See 27 N.C. Admin. Code 1D, Rule .0904(f) (Reinstatement by Secretary of the State Bar). As noted in the Scope section, the Rules of Professional Conduct are rules of reason. Rule 0.2, Scope. It would be impractical and expensive for a firm to remove a lawyer’s name from the firm name, firm signage, letterhead, all forms of advertisement, and the firm website if the administrative suspension is of limited duration. Therefore, provided Lawyer is reinstated to active status within a reasonable period of time not to exceed three months from the effective date of the administrative suspension, it is not a violation of Rule 7.1 or Rule 7.5 for Lawyer’s name to remain in the firm name, firm signage, letterhead, all forms of advertisement, and the firm website.