Two lawyers, Smith and Jones, have practiced together for a few years. They operated under the name Smith & Jones, LLC and used the URL www.smithandjones.com. Smith and Jones decided it was time to end their partnership and split ways. After the split, Jones retained the rights to the firm’s website and URL.
Can Jones keep using www.smithandjones.com?
At least one state, Virginia, has taken a look at this question and has concluded that the old firm’s URL does not have to immediately be changed or no longer used, if certain additional information is provided to the public.
While a law firm in Virginia cannot continue to include a departed partner’s name once that partner has joined another firm, that does not necessarily mean that the firm’s URL containing that departed partner’s name must be immediately abandoned.
Doing so “would not serve the interests of the public, including former/potential clients, or the partners in the former firm who collectively built goodwill and created value associated with that firm name.” That said, the use of a domain name/URL may not be false or misleading.
Examples of misleading in this scenario:
- A notice on the www.smithandjones.com website stating that Smith & Jones, LLC “has now become” the Jones Law Office, if it does not include “the additional information that Smith also continues to practice law, because it implies that Smith may no longer be available to represent clients and that clients of Smith & Jones will be represented by Jones.”
- Automatically redirecting traffic from www.smithandjones.com to www.joneslawoffice.com without providing some explanation, either as part of the redirecting process or on the www.joneslawoffice.com website, because “it implies that Smith may not be available for continued representation and that Jones may be the only remaining option for representation.”
Clients have the right to choose their lawyer, and lawyers, through control of a domain name, cannot impede that choice by refusing to provide information about a change in the name and composition of the law firm.
So according to the Virginia ethics opinion discussed above, the fairest and most ethically sound approach might be (always check your local rules and opinions) for the old firm’s URL to direct the public to a landing page that includes
- a statement that the law firm no longer exists in its prior form;
- that the partners are now practicing separately at different firms (if true); and
- provide contact information of each lawyer (address, phone, email, and hyperlinks to their new websites).
For more on law firm URLs, take a look at last week’s post.