What’s in a Name? New Jersey Supreme Court Opens Door for Lawyers’ Use of Trade Names

Last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court joined more than forty other states when it unanimously decided that it would amend its ethics rules to allow law firms to use trade names when accompanied by a lawyer’s name. However, the court chose not to decide whether New Jersey’s longtime ban on trade names violates the First Amendment. The amended rule allows for law firms to use trade names that accurately describe the law firm’s legal practice without promising results or boasting. A special committee will review the ethics rule amendment to work out implementation details before the change will take effect.

More than forty states have adopted professional conduct rules similar or identical to Model Rule 7.5, which has long permitted law firms to use trade names. The court recognized “the changing and more multijurisdictional nature of the legal profession” and the importance of observing the experiences of other states in regards to this issue. Most states have seen more of a benefit than harm in allowing the use of trade names. New Jersey provided a balanced solution in its opinion by allowing for the use of trade names, while imposing limitations that will serve to protect the public from being misled.

United States Circuit Courts are split on whether rules that restrict lawyers’ use of trade names violates the First Amendment. The Second Circuit struck down a New York rule that prohibited the use of trade names that imply the ability to achieve positive results. That court stated that the rule was unduly restrictive. However, the Fifth Circuit upheld a very similar rule in Louisiana. That court found that the rule was narrowly drawn to effectuate the governmental purpose in protecting the public from misleading advertising. Although the New Jersey Supreme Court did not rule on this issue, it briefly discussed the circuit split by stating, “legal minds can differ on the constitutional question whether use of trade names by law firms may be prohibited as a form of attorney advertising.”

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