Opinion #14. "Law Associates"
Issued by the Professional Ethics Commission
Date Issued: October 15, 1980
The Commission has been asked for an advisory opinion regarding the propriety of two attorneys forming an informal “association” with each other for the practice of law and holding themselves out to the public as such on their joint letterhead which would be captioned “Law Associates.” The attorneys will continue to have separate practices in separate towns but they intend to share some cases based on their respective experience, preference, and location. Fees are to be worked out on a case by case basis. It is not intended by the attorneys that their relationship be a formal partnership; although they fully accept liability for each other’s negligence (not only in shared cases, but in all cases either of them handles), they do not accept liability for each other’s debts incurred in the practice of law such as for rent, equipment purchases, or other business credit transactions.
Maine Bar Rule 3.9 now controls issues of publicity, advertising, and solicitation by lawyers. Its general approach is to permit any advertising which is not false, fraudulent, misleading or deceptive. Whether the expression “Law Associates” is misleading or deceptive depends on whether it omits to state any material fact necessary to make the statement not misleading [Rule 3.9(b)(2)], or is intended or is likely to create an unjustified expectation [Rule 3.9(b)(3)], or contains a representation or implication that is likely to cause an ordinary prudent person to misunderstand or be deceived thereby [Rule 3.9(b)(6)].
The Commission believes that the phrase in question, measured by these standards, is misleading under the circumstances proposed. The concept of an association is itself ambiguous, implying no particular degree of common enterprise. The general public will probably infer that the attorneys involved are likely to share cases, consult with each other on a continuing basis, and otherwise cooperate with each other. These inferences would be true with respect to the association planned. Some members of the public, however, may also infer that these attorneys are partners. This inference would be false in that these attorneys do not accept full partnership liability. Accordingly, the Commission concludes that the expression “law associates” used on a letterhead to describe this particular relationship would violate those subsections of Rule 3.9(b) cited above.