The Virginia State Bar’s Standing Committee of Legal Ethics has jumped into the 21st century with a new draft opinion.
It’s a Legal Ethics Opinion on one of those small but significant details left over from a firm break-up: What happens to the old firm’s web address and URL?
The hypothetical in proposed LEO 1873 involves the dissolution of the firm “Smith & Jones PC” – one of these days the hypo drafters will come up with more original names than these. Some fine old Virginia names such as “Brockenbrough” or “Cabell” or “Taliaferro” would do, although those of course are not as common as Smith and Jones.
The old firm had a URL, smithjones.com. Smith moved on; Jones filed all the papers to change the name of the practice to “Jones Law Office PC.” Savvy guy that he is, Jones went to GoDaddy.com or some other provider and registered the URL joneslawoffice.com. Now he wants to set up an automatic redirect, sending anyone looking for Smith Jones PC to joneslawoffice.com.
The ethics question: can he do that?
Surprise answer: yes, with some additional steps.
Some LEOs are crystal clear and the rules elaborated therein make great sense. Some LEOs leave you wondering what the drafters really meant and you feel like you’ll just take your chances by following your gut instincts.
The recommendations in LEO 1873 are right on point.
Some of the prior rulings on firm names and the like are understandable, if pretty hardcore – a guy leaves the firm, he’s got to come out of the firm name. His name comes off the letterhead. Back in the days of embossed vellum, some firms, instead of buying new (expensive) letterhead, would take a rubber stamp and XXXXX out the departed (gone, not dead) associate or other lawyer. Thank goodness for computer-generated letterhead.
The way to look at the dilemma, the committee opines, is from the vantage point of the potential client. The client may be the mousing around the Internet, trying to find her former law firm, Smith & Jones.
So it doesn’t make sense to just make the URL go away – it has value for clients.
But just sending traffic to the Jones Law Office could be misleading – a client might think that Smith isn’t practicing any longer or make some other incorrect conclusion.
The thing to do is for Jones to place a notice on his new firm website that Smith & Jones is no more and that Smith continues to practice law with a different firm.
“Clients are entitled to their choice of lawyer,” the draft concludes, and Jones can’t impede that choice by not giving the info about the change and firm composition.
The VSB can count this as my public comment of draft LEO 1873.
If you want to express an opinion of LEO 1873, you can as well, if you do so by Feb. 28. Info on how to do that, along with the full text of the draft, is available at www.vsb.org/site/regulation/public-comment-leo1873.