Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 00-07

(Approved June 2, 2000)
Do the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit a lawyer licensed to practice in Utah from participating in an association of lawyers that would use joint letterhead, with a disclaimer that the association “is an affiliation of independent attorneys-not a partnership?”

Opinion: A lawyer does not violate the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct if he participates in an association or affiliation of individual lawyers and law firms, provided that he adheres to the applicable rules regarding conflicts of interest and disclosure of confidential information. However, it would be misleading, and therefore a violation of the Rules, for the lawyer to participate in such an association or affiliation if its members were to practice under a common firm name and were to use joint letterhead. The inclusion of a partnership disclaimer would not cure the misleading nature of the letterhead concerning the relationship among the attorneys.
Facts: A Utah lawyer desires to associate himself with lawyers who are licensed to practice law in various foreign countries. Under the proposed arrangement, the members of the association would not be partners, but would be independent practitioners. It is not clear from the facts whether the lawyers participating in the association would merely refer clients to each other or whether they would also have some kind of a financial arrangement. The lawyers would use joint letterhead, which would identify the association as follows:
A, B, C & D
International Lawyers
Offices: Representative
A, Admitted: State,Country United Kingdom
B, Admitted: Country European Union
C, Admitted: Country Russia
D, Admitted: State, Country Asia
A,B,C & D is an affiliation of independent attorneys—not a partnership.
Analysis: A lawyer’s communications regarding the lawyer’s services, including the designation of the lawyer’s firm and the lawyer’s letterhead, must comply with the requirements of Rules 7.1, 7.4 and 7.5 of the Rules.
Rule 7.1 states that “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.”1Rule 7.5 governs firm names and letterheads, and subsection (d) is applicable to the analysis in this case: “Lawyers may state or imply that they practice in a partnership or other organization only when that is the fact.”2The obligation of the lawyer not to mislead third parties is further delineated by Rule 7.4, which outlines the limits of the lawyer’s communication of his fields of practice and states that, while allowed to indicate that his practice is limited to specific areas of practice, a lawyer cannot communicate that he is a specialist, unless otherwise permitted by the rule.3
The practice of law has evolved from the traditional model of a partnership with a single law office to various, more fluid forms of relationships among lawyers, which range from structures similar in nature to a partnership to arrangements that merely contemplate mutual referrals. It has now become common practice for lawyers to associate or become affiliated with other lawyers or law firms in different states or countries by way of some form of strategic alliance or participation in national or international networks. While these creative forms of association may provide a legitimate service to clients in a shrinking world, nonetheless they remain circumscribed by the Rules. (more…)