109 N.J.L.J. 294
April 8, 2982
Association of Law Firms
on Letterheads or Cards
This inquiry deals with the propriety of two different law
firms placing their firm names and the names of their partners on
a single letterhead or card in Martindale & Hubbell and on business
cards, designating themselves as "An Association of Law Firms." It
is represented to the Committee that one of the law firms
specializes in wills, estates and real estate, and the other in
litigation. The motivation for the association between the two
firms, it is said, is to enable the law firm called by a
prospective or existing client with reference to a matter within
the other law firm's competence to refer that matter to the other
law firm rather than to an outside attorney, and thus, "perhaps keep better control of the matter." The arrangement thus appears to relate to the referral and control of matters between the two firms pursuant to an "agreement", the terms of which are not, however, detailed.
The subject of the ambiguity of the phrase "in association with" was one of the subjects discussed in A.B.A. Formal Opinion 330 (1972), which indicated that the use of the word "associate" in letterhead and the like, other than as describing an employer - employee relationship is, in context of the practice of law, likely to be misleading, contrary to the provisions of DR 2-102. Therefore, the opinion held that the phrase should not be used with reference to another lawyer or law firm "who work, either occasionally or regularly in association with the listed firm or to whom legal business is occasionally or regularly referred." (Emphasis added)
While that opinion was rendered before the 1979 amendment to DR 2-102, we think its reasoning is still applicable and that the term "in association with" used on firm letterhead, etc., is "misleading" within the meaning of DR 2-102(A) and (B) as not being sufficiently descriptive of the actual relationship existing between two firms. We think that the term "an association of law firms" is subject to the same defect.
On the other hand, there may be an implication in the phrase, "An Association of Law Firms" that the "Association" is, in fact. a type of partnership. If so, the letterhead or cards would violate the provisions of DR 2-102(C) and certainly the suggested letterhead or cards without the explanatory term would do so. We, therefore, disapprove the letterhead and cards as described in the inquiry.
We also refer the inquirer to DR 2-107 and DR 2-103 (R), (C), (D) and (E) as being relevant to the agreement between the two firms as described in this inquiry.