Ethics Opinion

Opinion No. 83-10

October 1983

Summary: A law firm may include on its stationery and business cards the names of employees of the firm who are not lawyers, with titles or identifications of such employees, provided it is clear to lawyers and non-lawyers that such employees are not lawyers and the inclusion is not otherwise deceptive.

Facts: A law firm has inquired (1) whether it may place on its business cards and on the right-hand side of its stationery the name of its administrative manager, who is not a lawyer, with the title: "administrative manager" below his name, and (2) whether it may also list "paralegals" or "legal assistants" on its business cards and stationery.

Discussion: The present version of Disciplinary Rule 2-102(A) of Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3:07, which governs "Professional Notices, Letterheads, Offices and Law Lists," prohibits a law firm from ''knowingly us[ing] or participat[ingl in the use of a professional card, professional announcement card, office sign, letterhead, telephone directory listing, law list, legal directory listing, or a similar professional notice or device which includes a deceptive statement or claim." Unlike earlier versions of DR 2-102(A), it does not otherwise restrict the information that may be contained on a law firm's business card or letterhead. Because of the significant difference between the present and previous versions of this disciplinary rule, we believe that the inclusion on a law firm's business card and letterhead (i.e., stationery) of the name of the firm's administrative manager, paralegals or legal assistants, with titles identifying them and with further identification of such personnel which makes it clear to non-lawyers as well as lawyers that such personnel are not lawyers, would not constitute a violation of DR 2-102(A) or any other disciplinary rule and would be permissible if it is not otherwise deceptive.
The present version of DR 2-102(A) represents an unmistakable change from previous versions, under which the inclusion of a non-lawyer's name on a law firm's letterhead or business card would have been improper. Previous versions of DR 2-102(A) were very specific as to the information that could be included. For example, the version contained in the American Bar Association Model of Professional Responsibility, as amended through August l980, permitted a lawyer to use a professional card "identifying him by name and as a lawyer and giving his addresses, telephone numbers, the name of his law firm," and other specified information including "the names of members and associates." Although inclusion of the names of non-lawyers on a law firm's letterhead or business cards was not expressly prohibited, it was made clear in numerous opinions that the addition of information such as names of non-lawyer employees of the firm was not intended to be permitted.
Informal Opinion 1000, October 16, 1967, of the American Bar Association's Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded, citing several previous informal opinions, that a law firm could not list a salaried investigator on its letterhead as "staff investigator" or in any other manner. One of the opinions referred to therein, Informal Opinion 845, April 26, 1965, held that a law firm could not list a person designated as "office manager" on its letterhead. Similarly, Informal Opinion 619, December 28, 1962, held that a sole practitioner's letterhead could not carry the name of his secretary. Our Opinion No. 73-2 reached a like conclusion, stating that "it seems clear that a non-lawyer may not be listed on the stationery of a lawyer or law firm, even with appropriate indentification of status."
The principle underlying both previous versions of DR 2-102(A) and the committee opinions noted above was that a law firm's business cards and letterhead were intended to be used only to identify the attorneys available to provide legal services on behalf of the firm, see Informal Opinion 770, July 20, 1964, and the inclusion of other information (except of the limited types permitted by earlier versions of DR 2-102(A)) on such notices could not serve that restricted purpose and might serve purposes as improper advertising. As Informal Opinion 845 put the matter, "In any event, the only purpose which we can detect in including the designation of an 'office manager' on the firm letterhead would be to impress upon those seeing the letterhead the size, importance and efficiency of the firm, which comes within the general prohibition of the Canons of Ethics against self-laudation or 'puffing.'"
In light of the clarity of previous versions of the DR 2-102(A) and of the opinions of the ABA Committee and this committee on this matter, the change in the most recent version of DR 2-102(A) adopted by the Supreme Judicial Court cannot be thought to have been lightly undertaken. The court apparently concluded that it was permissible for a law firm's business card or letterhead to convey information beyond that of the identity of person qualified to provide legal services on behalf of the firm, as long as such information was not misleading. Accordingly, we must treat seriously its implied acceptance of the inclusion of information on a law firm's business card and letterhead that would previously have been prohibited by DR 2-102(A) but which cannot be considered deceptive.
In addition, we recognize the legitimate desire to provide appropriate recognition to valued employees who are not lawyers, or to clarify to persons who might be communicating with such employees their position in the firm, that would lead a firm to include on its business card or letterhead the type of identification this inquiry concerns. In light of such considerations, we believe that it is permissible to place the names of a law firm's non-legal personnel, including administrative managers, paralegals, or legal assistants, with titles identifying them as such, on its business card and letterhead, so long as the form of the letterhead or card makes clear that they are not lawyers, and it is not otherwise misleading to lawyers or non-lawyers. Since the term "legal assistant" is used to describe lawyers as well as non-lawyers, a firm that uses the term legal assistant to describe its non-lawyer personnel should keep that mind in designing its letterhead or business card in order to avoid being deceptive.

Permission to publish granted by the Board of Delegates on November 29, 1983. As stated in the Rules of the Committee on Professional Ethics, this advice is that of a committee without official governmental status.