Advertising a Local Telephone Number in a Community Where a Law Firm Has No Office
Opinion rules that a local or remote call forwarding telephone number may not be included in an advertisement for legal services disseminated in a community where the law firm has neither an office nor a lawyer present in the community unless an explanation is included in the advertisement.
ABC Law Firm has a central office in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but has a Charlotte regional office where there is a full-time secretary and a North Carolina attorney assigned to do case work. ABC Law Firm also has offices in Asheville, Hendersonville, and Hickory which are manned daily by a North Carolina attorney. ABC Law Firm regularly has North Carolina attorneys try cases and attend hearings throughout North Carolina. Some of the attorneys with ABC Law Firm are only licensed in South Carolina, some of the attorneys are only licensed in North Carolina, and some of the attorneys with the firm are licensed in both jurisdictions.
ABC Law Firm would like to publish an advertisement in the phone directories for three North Carolina communities that are within commuting distance of ABC Law Firm's four North Carolina satellite offices. However, ABC Law Firm has no office nor is there an ABC attorney located in any of these communities. The advertisement will include the telephone numbers for each of the four North Carolina satellite offices as well as a toll free number for the firm. The advertisement will also list remote call forwarding telephone numbers under the names of the towns in which it has neither an office nor an attorney. A remote call forwarding telephone number appears to be a local telephone number because no area code must be dialed from the local community; if the phone number is called in the local community, the call is forwarded to a remote location.
The advertisement will also state that the firm has law offices in four North Carolina locations and three South Carolina locations and that both North Carolina and South Carolina attorneys are available through the firm. The names of individual attorneys in the firm will not be included in the advertisement, and there would also be no listing of jurisdictions in which the individual attorneys are licensed to practice. ABC Law Firm intends to only assign North Carolina licensed attorneys to North Carolina cases. Does the advertisement comply with the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct?
No. Rule 2.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits false and misleading communications about a lawyer or the lawyer's services. Rule 2.1(a) describes a misleading communication as a communication that "contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading." It is misleading communication for a law firm to infer that it has an office or a lawyer located in a community when, in fact, there is no law office or lawyer for the firm present in the community. Listing what appears to be a local telephone number in an advertisement circulated in such a community, without including an explanation in the advertisement that the number is not a local telephone number and that there is no law office in that community, will mislead readers as to the actual location of the offices of ABC Law Firm.
It is not a violation of Rule 2.1 for ABC Law Firm to advertise in North Carolina communities even though some ABC lawyers are not licensed in North Carolina provided ABC Law Firm is registered with the North Carolina State Bar as an interstate law firm, the advertisement notes that the firm has locations in both North Carolina and South Carolina, and only North Carolina licensed lawyers handle North Carolina cases.