Lawyers in solo practice and those starting new firms are sometimes advised to have a logo created to brand their law practice and thus differentiate it from the other firms. See, Do-It-Yourself Marketing: Tips for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers published by the ABA Section of Law Practice Management in 2011.

A logo has much importance in lawyer advertising in that it creates an immediate visual identification and conveys the fact of your presence and a message about the nature of the firm.  For lawyers, the scales of justice frequently make an appearance, to the point that it might approach being characterized as cliché.

Generally a law firm’s use of a logo in their letterhead and other communications is viewed as unobjectionable.  See, e.g. Iowa Opinion 94-24 (1995)  (law firm may display,  banner with its logo and the phrase “Celebrating 100 years.”); Utah State Bar Opinion 02-02  (2002)  (items such as pens, flashlights, golf balls and the like displaying the firm’s logo do not constitute a written communication soliciting professional employment. The firm’s logo does not extoll the firm’s expertise, encourage the recipient to contact the firm, or otherwise request employment. As a result, such items do not need to contain the words “Advertising Material” on them.)

Pit Bulls: Loyalty and Tenacity or Malevolence and Viciousness?

However, under certain circumstances, the choice of symbol or icon is not unconstrained.  In  Florida Bar v. Pape,  918 So. 2d 240 (Fla. 2005) a pair of lawyers were reprimanded for their use of the image of a pit bull dog wearing a spiked collar in between their two names.  The Florida Supreme Court found this image violated certain aspects of Florida’s lawyer advertising rules including those in the comments to Rule 7.1,  that require “factual information presented in a nonsensational manner”  The court also stated that the pit bull image characterized the quality of the lawyer’s services in violation of the state’s version of Rule 7.2 Advertising ..”

The referee who heard the initial bar complaint did not find that the logo as used violated the Florida Rules of  Professional Conduct, associating the positive pit bull qualities of loyalty, tenacity, and aggressiveness with the logo.  However, the Florida court looked to the darker side of the breed invoking the imagery of malevolence, viciousness, and unpredictability… Pit bulls have a reputation for viciousness that is borne of experience”, the court said, citing studies, court cases, and legislation. “

The Court tossed a bone to the former standard of dignity in lawyer advertising (See, e.g. ABA Informal 884 (1965) (stating that lawyer’s  “announcements …should be ‘truthful, dignified, appropriate, and in good taste”)  saying, “Prohibiting advertisements such as the one in this case is one step we can take to maintain the dignity of lawyers, as well as the integrity of, and public confidence in, the legal system…Were we to approve the referee’s finding, images of sharks, wolves, crocodiles, and piranhas could follow.”

In 2008, the Utah State Bar issued a comprehensive ethics opinion on lawyer advertising in which it disagreed with the Florida holding, saying it is unnecessary and unwise to twist the meaning of false and misleading to additionally prohibit statements that are already prohibited by Rule 8.4(e).  (See, Utah State Bar Opinion 08-03).

False, Misleading Advertising?

Some state bars have expressed concerns about the potential for false and misleading communications when using logos.   See Iowa Opinion 95-3 (1995) (law firm celebrating one hundred years of  existence may display a banner to note their centennial year.  “A dignified reference to the one hundred years of service may be noted on the firm letterhead and business cards, but anything else, such as a logo , would constitute advertising and be improper without the disclosures required by the Iowa Code of Professional Responsibility for Lawyers”); Missouri Opinion 20010065 (2001) ( law firm may use a logo in its letterhead and other documents where it commemorates a particular number of years in business, but it must include an explanation that the firm has changed in form over the years);   South Carolina bar Opinion 02-17 (undated)  (A lawyer may be employed by a nonprofit corporation to represent crime victims letterhead used  may contain the  corporation’s logo so long as it is not false or misleading.).

Sometimes, it’s not what it is but whose it Is

Some state bars have also addressed a lawyer’s use of another entity’s logo on firm letterhead and website.  See Maryland State Bar Association Opinion 2007-01 (9/8/06) allowing lawyers to be listed in an online service’s directory but not to use the service’s logo,  as that construed as an endorsement by the service; Virginia State Bar Opinion 775 (1986)  (lawyers who are employees of an insurance  may a include the insurance company’s logo .

See Also Pennsylvania Bar Association Opinion 2007-25 (2007)  (lawyer who is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc  may not use the Academy’s logo or note Academy membership on his stationery  which could be construed that the lawyer is a certified specialist. Pennsylvania Bar Association Opinion 92-117 (1992)   (lawyer may join but may not use Better Business Bureau’s logo or name when advertising as such could be potentially misleading;Virginia State Bar Opinion 1658 (1995)  (law firm whose lawyer- president is also be a shareholder  and chairman of the board  of a consulting firm  may use a common logo and letterhead trade name with the consulting firm if they are not misleading).

Generally, the use of logos on law firm stationary websites and business cards is unobjectionable.  However,  just as with any other form of lawyer communications about themselves or the services they provide, there can be circumstances under which they could be deemed to be  misleading.  As always, check the applicable rules of professional conduct, court rules and ethics opinions of the jurisdiction.  Your state or local bar association may also be able to help.

The post Ethics tip: When your logo is a no-go appeared first on ABA for Law Students.

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