We previously reported on a recent amendment to Rule 7.5 of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, which eliminated New York's long-standing prohibition against practicing law under a trade name. Until June of this year, Rule 7.5 required law firm names to consist of the names of current or former lawyers. The rule change now permits New York lawyers to practice under a trade name, provided the name is not "false, deceptive or misleading." The New York State Bar Association Ethics Committee has now issued an ethics opinion interpreting Rule 7.5, as amended.
N.Y. State Op. 1207 (2020) addresses three questions:
- Is a law firm permitted to use the name "LONG Legal Group," where LONG is an acronym for “Law Office of Norman Grant” (fictional) who is the sole owner of the firm?
- Is a law firm permitted to use the trade name “Maple Street Law Group,” where the law firm has a physical office on Maple Street?
- Is a lawyer named Jones permitted to continue using the law firm name “Smith & Jones, LLP,” where Smith is retiring from the practice of law?
The opinion answers yes to each of these questions.
As to the first two questions, the Committee notes that both "LONG Legal Group" and "Maple Street Law Group" are trade names that would have been prohibited under the old version of Rule 7.5. Under the new rule, however, both names are permissible because they are not false, deceptive, or misleading.
With respect to the third question, the Opinion explains that the former version of Rule 7.5 "expressly provided that, 'if otherwise lawful, a firm may use as, or continue to include in its name the name or names of one or more deceased or retired members of the firm or of a predecessor firm in a continuing line of succession.'" The recent amended to Rule 7.5 deleted that language, but "only because it was unnecessary now that the amended black letter text permits trade names that are not false, deceptive, or misleading." In other words, the Opinion concludes that the use of a deceased or retired lawyer's name is permissible as a trade name under the new amended rule.
The Opinion further notes that Comment  to Rule 7.5 contains essentially the same language as the original rule. Specifically, Comment  states: "It is not false, deceptive, or misleading for a firm to be designated by … the names of retired or deceased members where there has been a continuing line of succession in the firm’s identity.” Although the Comments are not binding, they are "accepted as reliable guides to interpreting the Rules, as long as they do not contradict the black letter text."
A law firm may practice in New York using a name that is not the name of any lawyer practicing in the firm – in other words, under a trade name – so long as the name under which the firm practices is not false, deceptive or misleading. A New York law firm may continue to include the name of a retired partner in its name.