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Ethics Opinion

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RI-34

October 25, 1989

SYLLABUS

    A law firm may note on its letterhead certain nonlawyer job titles and who performs those services provided that the information is not misleading, false, fraudulent or deceptive as to the fact that the nonlawyers are performing nonlawyer functions.

    A law firm may provide business cards for nonlawyer employees which indicate the nonlawyer's job title, if the information is not false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading.

    References: MRPC 5.3, 7.1, 7.5. CI-787 and CI-1155 are superseded; CI-46, CI-92, CI-215, CI-724 and CI-1003 are superseded to the extent inconsistent with this opinion.

TEXT

A lawyer asks whether the lawyer may indicate on firm letterhead the name and job title of a full time legal assistant who is employed by the law firm, and issue law firm business cards to the nonlawyer employee.

Pursuant to MRPC 5.3, a lawyer is responsible for seeing that conduct of nonlawyer employees is compatible with lawyer ethics rules. Under MRPC 7.5, a lawyer shall not use a firm name, letterhead, or other professional designation that violates MRPC 7.1.

A lawyer may use or participate in the use of a public communication that is not false, fraudulent, misleading or deceptive [MRPC 7.1]. Because of this strong statement, there are few constraints on the exercise of First Amendment rights with regard to communications concerning a lawyer's services. Among these constraints are that a communication should not contain a material misrepresentation or omit a material fact [MRPC 7.1(a)]. A communication may not create an unjustified expectation about the results the lawyer can achieve, [MRPC 7.1(b)], nor compare the lawyer's services with those of other lawyers, unless the comparison can be factually substantiated, MRPC 7.1(c).

The use of job titles for nonlawyer law firm employees is common in modern day practice. These job titles may include "legal assistant," "clerk," "law clerk," "paralegal," "office administrator," "investigator," "business manager," and the like. CI-724 allows "clerks, legal assistants or paraprofessionals" to have business cards listing the name and title of the nonlawyer. There is little distinction between having a name and title on a business card and reproducing that name and title on a firm letterhead.

It would seem axiomatic that the use of a business card for a nonlawyer must include the nonlawyer job title. The title must clearly indicate the nonlawyer nature of the employment, e.g., paraprofessional, paralegal, business manager, etc. It is even more compelling on a firm's letterhead where the names of licensed lawyers appear, that the nonlawyer's job title clearly distinguish the nonlawyer from the lawyer.

There are two general types of letterhead that are commonly seen in the legal profession: the letterhead which lists solely the name of the firm and contains the name of the one individual who is signing the correspondence, and the type of letterhead which lists all the lawyers who practice with the firm. It would be particularly important where only one name appears on the letterhead that the job title of a nonlawyer also be printed beneath the nonlawyer's name, in a manner that does not violate MRPC 7.1(a).

With letterhead which recites the entire list of all practicing lawyers, it is important to denominate the nonlawyers with a job title which indicates they are not lawyers. Any indication which complies with MRPC 7.1 is acceptable. It would be clearer, perhaps, for clients, opposing counsel, courts, the general public and third parties if lawyers were listed on one side of the letterhead while nonlawyers were indicated on the opposite side of the letterhead with their attendant job titles. Such physical separation would enhance the clarification that the paraprofessional is not licensed to practice law.

It might be misleading to list a law office administrator or business manager as the "Executive Director" of a law firm, even though that may be true. The term "Executive Director" is a designation which would be likely to mislead those who see it that the nonlawyer who is the "Executive Director" may exercise control over the lawyers in the firm. It would be misleading to indicate that a nonlawyer employee has a J.D., even though that may be an accurate designation, since clients and the public would be misled into thinking the person is trained and authorized to give legal advice contrary to MCLA 600.916.

Other jurisdictions have followed the course outlined above. Florida Op 86-4; Illinois Op 87-1; Alabama Op 86-120; Virginia Op 767.

In conclusion, it is acceptable for a lawyer to list on letterhead and business cards the names of nonlawyer employees as long as the job titles clearly indicate the nonlawyers are not licensed to practice law and, when taken as a whole the stationery or business card complies with MRPC 7.1. CI-787 and CI-1155 are superseded; CI-46, CI-92, CI-215, CI-724 and CI-1003 are superseded to the extent inconsistent with this opinion.

 
     

 

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