Opinions

Ethics Opinion 271

Inactive Members: Business Cards and Letterhead

A lawyer who is licensed to practice in three jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, and who plans to become an inactive member of the D.C. Bar cannot indicate that he is admitted to the D.C. Bar on his letterhead and business cards without further elaboration. To avoid misleading the public about his present ability to practice law in the District of Columbia, the lawyer must note his inactive status once it becomes effective.

Applicable Rules
  • Rule 7.1 (Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services)
  • Rule 7.5 (Firm Names and Letterheads)
Inquiry
A lawyer is currently an active member of the New Jersey, Pennsylvania and District of Columbia bars.

The lawyer is considering becoming an inactive member of the District of Columbia Bar in order to be exempt from the annual District of Columbia Professional License Fee. The lawyer has never had the occasion to practice law in the District of Columbia since becoming a member of the D.C. Bar. The lawyer inquires whether he can state “Admitted to N.J., P.A. and D.C. bars” on his business cards, business announcements, and letterheads after he becomes an inactive member of the D.C. Bar.

Discussion
This inquiry poses the question whether the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct permit an inactive member of the D.C. Bar to indicate “Admitted to N.J., P.A. and D.C. bars” on his business cards and letterhead without any further explanation. The Committee concludes that it would be misleading if the lawyer does not indicate his inactive status on his business cards and letterhead. This omission would violate Rules 7.1 and 7.5.

Rule 7.5 prohibits lawyers from using firm names, letterheads, or other professional designations that violate Rule 7.1. Rule 7.1, in turn, prevents a lawyer from making a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or his services. A communication that is false or misleading “contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading” or “contains an assertion about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services that cannot be substantiated.” Rules 7.1(a)(1); 7.1(a)(2).

In Opinion 244, this Committee held that the name of a nonlawyer partner may be included in the name of a law firm so long as business cards and letterhead clearly indicate that the nonlawyer partner is not a lawyer. Similarly, in ABA Informal Opinion 89-1527 (Feb. 22, 1989), the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility determined that the listing of nonlawyer personnel on a law firm’s letterhead and business cards is permissible so long as these materials make it clear that the nonlawyer personnel are not licensed to practice law and do not exercise control over the law firm’s professional legal practice. The rationale underlying both Opinion 244 and ABA Informal Opinion 89-1527 is that failing to distinguish those persons who are presently permitted to practice law and those who are not, is misleading under Rule 7.1(a)(1).

Similarly, in Nevada Ethics Opinion 14 (Oct. 8, 1993), the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility held that a lawyer may list the states where she is currently inactive on her letterhead so long as it includes a qualification indicating the lawyer’s inactive status. The Standing Committee recognized that it would be potentially misleading to the public for the lawyer not to note her inactive status.

The same rationale applies to the present inquiry. Once a lawyer becomes an inactive member of the D.C. Bar, it would be misleading to state, on his letterhead and business cards, that he is “Admitted to N.J., P.A. and D.C. bars” because this statement implies a present ability to practice law in this jurisdiction. Rule II, sec. 4, of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals Rules Governing the Bar, provides that “[n]o judicial or inactive member shall be entitled to practice law in the District of Columbia.” The statement “Admitted to N.J., P.A. and D.C. bars” suggests that the lawyer is presently permitted to practice in all three jurisdictions. As Rule II indicates, however, once the lawyer opts for inactive status, he will no longer be permitted to practice law in the District of Columbia. It would be misleading for the lawyer to state that he is admitted to the D.C. Bar without saying anything more. This would create the impression that the lawyer is presently permitted to practice in D.C. when indeed he is not. Therefore, a lawyer must note his inactive status on letterhead and business cards so as not to violate Rule 7.1 and Rule 7.5.

April 1997