Law firms have boring names for a reason. The rules of legal ethics prohibit creative trade names like “The Get Out of Jail Guy” and pretty much force firms into using variations of John Doe, P.A. or Smith and Jones, LLP. The requirements for a law firm’s web address are far less restrictive.
What Are the Ethics Rules For Choosing a Law Firm Domain Name?
In 2003, the New York Bar Association issued an opinion stating that domain names are not subject to the same rules as firm names (scroll down for opinions from other states). The opinion cited previous opinions by the Arizona and Ohio bars, and a cursory search of the practices in most states shows that this holds true for most, if not all, of the country.
New York requires law firm domain names that are not substantially the same as the firm name to follow four rules, and these rules mirror best practices for complying with general ethical obligations in other states.
- The website must clearly show the actual name of the firm.The firm’s actual name and its contact information must be prominently displayed. That is, even if The Law Firm of Smith and Jones, LLP is offering will drafting services at WillMaker.com (actually a Quicken site), each page should have a header or logo that says The Law Firm of Smith and Jones, LLP. The firm may not completely brand the site and provide will drafting services in a way that clients solely recognize it as WillMaker.com.
- The domain name may not be false, deceptive, or misleading.A domain name may not have to follow the strict rules of law firm names, but it’s still subject to general ethics rules.
- The domain name does not imply any special expertise or competence.Be careful here. Targeting niche markets with domain names like www.MiamiDUILawyer.com is good practice. www.MiamiDUIExpert.com probably crosses the line. Also be wary of top-level domains such as .expert or .guru.
- The domain name does not suggest a particular result.Stay away from domain names like www.BigVerdict.com or www.GetOutOfJail.com. Even if you use the domain name to reference past big verdicts and include the standard disclaimers about future results not being guaranteed, the fact that the domain name will always be much more prominent than the disclaimer probably makes it incompatible with the ethical rules.
Can a Law Firm Domain Name Be Referenced in Attorney Advertising?
The domain name can generally only be used to identify a website not as a replacement for the law firm name. The domain name should only be used as an online address, and you should not attribute your legal services, experience, or areas of practice to the domain name. Clients and prospective clients should not be led to substitute the domain name for your firm’s own name.
If your sole purpose is to drive visitors to your website, perhaps as part of a content marketing campaign, it may be permissible to only reference the domain name. To be safe, you must not reference your legal services or information about your attorneys; you should only reference the legal information provided on your website. Caution: This practice is not contrary to any of the below ethics opinions, but it has not been explicitly permitted.
Key Ethical Questions to Answer
- Does your state require a domain name to be registered as a trade name?
- Does your state require you to file your domain name because copies of all advertisements must be filed?
- Does your state require specific information to be listed on the website (firm name, individual attorney names, contact information, disclaimers)?
- How can a domain name be used in offline advertisements?
Law Firm Domain Name Ethics by State
States not listed have not published an ethics opinion related to domain names as of writing. For those states, follow the general considerations above along with the state’s general ethics rules. Attorneys are reminded to independently verify the most up-to-date rules for your jurisdiction.
Domain name does not need to be identical to the firm’s name.
- Domain names are considered “professional designations” within the meaning off the Rules of Professional Conduct.
- Domain names are considered a form of communication regarding the lawyer’s services and, among other requirements under the rules, must not be misleading.
- A private law firm using the domain name “countybar.com” would be misleading.
- For-profit firms were formerly barred (in the 2001 opinion) from using a .org domain name because .org was intended to indicate a non-profit organization, and they should not imply an affiliation with a non-profit organization or government entity. The opinion also cautioned lawyers to use similar considerations if new top-level domains became available in the future.
- The use of .org domain names by for-profit firms is now permissible under Ethics Opinion 11-04: Firm Domain Names; Trade Names; Advertising. The Committee recognized that .org names have not been restricted to non-profit entities, and they have been widely used by for-profit entities. Therefore, the mere use of a .org domain name by a for-profit firm is no longer considered misleading.
Kentucky (Ethics Opinion KBA E-427) (Caution: May be out of date.)
- A domain name that does not use the name of the firm or an attorney is not a per se violation of ethics rules.
- Domain names indicating practice areas may be used but may not include words such as certified, specialists, experts, or authority.
- The website must clearly identify the firm or lawyer responsible for the website.
- Domain name does not need to include the firm’s name or the name of any individual attorney.
- The website must clearly and prominently identify the actual law firm name, its street address, and its telephone number.
- The domain name may not imply that the lawyer has been recognized or certified as a specialist other than as provided by the rules of professional conduct.
- The domain name may not be used as a substitute identifier for the firm in advertising.
- The firm may not use the domain name in lieu of the formal name of the firm.
- Domain name does not need to include or embody the firm name or the name of any individual lawyer.
- The website bearing the domain name must clearly and conspicuously identify the actual law firm name.
- A law firm or attorney cannot attempt to practice law under a domain name.
- A domain name may be referenced in advertising but cannot be used as a substitute identifier for the firm.
- Client testimonials cannot be used if they substitute the domain name for the firm name.
- Domain name does not to indicate that the URL is a website for a law firm (2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 14).
- Homepage of website must clearly and unambiguously identify the site as belonging to a law firm or lawyer (2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 14).
- Domain name is a trade name and must be registered with the North Carolina State Bar for a determination of whether the name is misleading (2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 8).
Ohio (Opinion 99-4) (Caution: May be out of date.)
- Not improper for an attorney to use numbers, letters, or words other than their law firm name as their domain name.
- Domain names should be treated as an address (analogous to a street address) rather than as a firm name.
- It is preferable to use the firm name as the domain name, but other domain names are allowed subject to their compliance with other ethical restrictions.
Oklahoma (Internet Advertising Ethics Advisory)
- Domain name does not need to contain the name of the lawyer/firm.
South Carolina (Ethics Advisory Opinion 04-06)
- A law firm may use a descriptive web address (e.g., www.personalinjurylawyer.com or www.bankruptcylawyer.com).
- The website must identify the lawyer or lawyers who are responsible for the operation and content of the site. At least one lawyer must be individually named; the firm name is not enough.
- Domain name that is a reasonable variation of the firm name or that is a description of the lawyer or law firm may be used as a locator or electronic address only.
- A firm or lawyer may not practice law or do business under a domain name.
Virginia (Legal Ethics Opinion 1873)
- Domain name redirects (e.g., redirecting smithjones.com to joneslawoffice.com) are permissible as long as they are not false or misleading. An explanation for the change may need to be posted to avoid the redirect being false or misleading.