State Bar of Arizona Ethics Opinions

11-04: Firm Domain Names; Trade Names; Advertising
12/2011

Subject to the requirement that a law firm’s website address not be false or misleading, the mere use of “.org” by a for-profit law firm does not violate the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct.  Ariz. Ethics Op. 01-05 is modified accordingly.



FACTS

In March 2001, the Committee issued Ariz. Ethics Op. 01-05, which discussed the limitations to which a law firm is subject when creating or using a website address for its law firm website.  Among other conclusions, the Committee opined that a for-profit law firm may not use a domain name that contains the suffix “.org,” on the ground that such use “creates a false impression that the firm either is a non-profit or is in some way specifically affiliated with a non-profit.”
 
A law firm has requested that the Committee reconsider its position that the use of the suffix “.org” violates the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct.
 
QUESTION PRESENTED
 
May a for-profit law firm use a website address that contains the suffix “.org”?
 
APPLICABLE ARIZONA RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT (“ER __”)
 
ER 7.1  Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services
 
A lawyer shall not make or knowingly permit to be made on the lawyer’s behalf a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.
 
ER 7.5  Firm Names and Letterheads
 
(a) A lawyer shall not use a firm name, letterhead or other professional designation that violates ER 7.1. A trade name may not be used by a lawyer in private practice.
 
. . . .
 
RELEVANT ARIZONA ETHICS OPINION
 
Ariz. Ethics Op. 01-05
 
OPINION
 
As we indicated in Ariz. Ethics Op. 01-05, a law firm’s website address is the mechanism by which the law firm’s website is located by persons using the Internet.  The website address frequently differs from the law firm name.  The website address is typically used on business cards, letterhead, telephone directories, and other listings so that actual and potential clients and others will be able to identify and remember the firm easily.  Since the website address is intended to identify the law firm, it is a “professional designation” within the meaning of ER 7.5, and its selection and use is therefore subject to the requirements of ER 7.1.  Thus, while the website address need not be the same as the law firm name, it cannot be false or misleading.  For example, the website address may not state or imply that the law firm has qualifications, competence, or experience that it does not, or that the law firm has an affiliation or relationship with another organization unless that affiliation or relationship actually exists.
 
The website address contains a suffix (.com, .gov, .edu, .net, .org, etc.) that identifies the domain in which the website is located.  Opinion 01-05 relied on U.S. Department of Commerce guidelines that identified “.org” as pertaining to a non-profit entity.  On that basis, the Committee concluded that a for-profit law firm’s use of “.org” as a suffix “creates a false impression that the firm either is non-profit or is in some way specially affiliated with a non-profit,” and was not permitted under the Ethical Rules.
 
Since 2001, use of Internet domain names, including those with the suffix “.org,” has skyrocketed.  Of particular significance here, notwithstanding the “guidelines” in the Department of Commerce document relied on in Op. 01-05, the use of an “.org” suffix for Internet domain names has not been restricted to “non-profit” entities.  To the contrary, anyone may register a website address that contains the suffix “.org,” and the person registering the address is not required to demonstrate that the website is or will be owned or used by a non-profit entity.
 
Moreover, in light of the widespread use of the “.org” suffix by for-profit organizations in the years since Ariz. Ethics Op. 01-05 was issued, the possibility that the public will be misled by a for-profit law firm’s use of “.org’ in its website address is remote.  “Whether a communication about a lawyer or legal services is false or misleading is based upon the perception of a reasonable person.”  ER 7.1 [comment 5] (emphasis added).  A reasonable person, desiring to verify whether an entity is non-profit, would not rely solely on the entity’s website address.
 
In light of the foregoing, the Committee does not believe that the mere use of “.org” by a for-profit law firm is a violation of the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct.  Opinion 01-05 is modified accordingly.
 
Except to the extent modified by this opinion, the Committee believes that Ariz. Ethics Op. 01-05 is correct.  Thus, a lawyer or a law firm may not use a domain name that falsely implies that the lawyer or the law firm is affiliated with a particular non-profit organization or with a governmental entity or which otherwise is false or misleading.
 
CONCLUSION
 
Subject to the requirement that a law firm’s website address not be false or misleading, the mere use of “.org” by a for-profit law firm does not violate the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct.  Ariz. Ethics Op. 01-05 is modified accordingly.
 
Formal opinions of the Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct are advisory in nature only and are not binding in any disciplinary or other legal proceedings. This opinion is based on the Ethical Rules in effect on the date the opinion was published. If the rule changes, a different conclusion may be appropriate. © State Bar of Arizona 2011