Note: All information found within the below may be outdated. Readers are strongly encouraged to recheck rules, cited sources, ethics opinions, etc.
The Nuts and Bolts of Law Firm Letterhead
By Thomas K. Byerley
MBJ November 1997
This column provides information on lawyer and judicial regulatory issues which have been the subject of recent inquiry.
Rule 7.5 of the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) provides:
"Firm Names and Letterheads.
(a) A lawyer shall not use a firm name, letterhead or other professional designation that violates Rule 7.1. A trade name may be used by a lawyer in private practice if it does not imply a connection with a government agency or with a public or charitable legal services organization and it is not otherwise in violation of Rule 7.1.
(b) A law firm with offices in more than one jurisdiction may use the same name in each jurisdiction, but identification of the lawyers in an office of the firm shall indicate the jurisdictional limitations on those not licensed to practice in the jurisdiction where the office is located.
(c) The name of a lawyer holding a public office shall not be used in the name of a law firm, or in communications on its behalf, during any substantial period in which the lawyer is not actively and regularly practicing with the firm.
(d) Lawyers may state or imply that they practice in a partnership or other organization only when that is the fact."
MRPC 7.1, referred to in MRPC 7.5(a), prohibits a lawyer from making any public communication that is "false, fraudulent, misleading or deceptive."
There have been numerous ethics opinions issued on letterhead-related questions. Some of the most common questions (and answers) on lawyer letterhead issues include:
Also, 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. RI-34. A law firm may include on firm letterhead a nonlawyer employee with the designation "appraiser," as long as the communication indicates clearly that the employee is a nonlawyer. RI-105.
Ethics opinion RI-45 contains a well-reasoned summary of issues surrounding letterhead questions. That opinion states:
"In sum, the rules require that lawyers be honest and clear in the representations which they make to the public regarding the nature of their practices. Firm names, letterhead, office signs, court pleadings, advertisements, and all other communications must accurately describe the nature of the relationship with other lawyers. Consumers of legal services have a right to understand what individual or entity they can look to for the provision of legal services and who they can hold responsible for the manner in which those services are provided."
If this guidance is accepted by lawyers making decisions concerning firm letterhead, many ethics dilemmas may be avoided.
Thomas K. Byerley is the Regulation Counsel for the State Bar of Michigan.
State Bar of Michigan
306 Townsend St
Lansing, MI 48933-2012