• January 7, 2014

The Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board issued an opinion in 2009 that including “& Associates” to a single lawyer’s law firm name “is false and misleading if the use conveys the impression the law firm has more attorneys practicing law in the firm than is actually the case.”

“& Associates” in a law firm name when the law firm has only one lawyer must convey the impression the law firm has more attorneys practicing law in the firm than is actually the case.

So Minnesota lawyers (and customers for legal services) should be able to rely on “& Associates” to mean that the law firm has more than one lawyer.  (In fact, any such firm should have a minimum of three lawyers (the named lawyer and minimum of two associates)).

But, unfortunately, many solo Minnesota lawyers are subverting this rule with names like “Smith Law Group” or “Offices of Jane Doe” and holding themselves out and advertising with websites that include links to “our lawyers” and refer throughout the website to the business as “us.”

So what? Who cares?

I do. I care quite a lot, actually.

As a solo lawyer, I face a significant marketing/commercial disadvantage from others against whom I compete for work because I am a solo lawyer.  Many potential clients favor hiring “a law firm” rather than a lawyer, under the impression that their legal needs are too important to entrust to “just one person.”

So I am at a disadvantage when such potential clients have to choose between LEVENTHAL pllc, which plainly holds itself out as a one-person business, and “Smith Law Group” that misleadingly presents itself on the internet as a multi-person law firm.

Some may counter that any such disguise is extraordinarily easy to unmask (sometimes with just a click to “our lawyers,” which then includes a single bio of a single lawyer) and, therefore, very few potential clients, if any, are ever taken in.

To this, I answer that this is an empirical question that is not easily answered (maybe impossible).  I will note, however, that false and misleading advertising is a persistent and pervasive problem in market economies worldwide. Why? Because it works. Also, consumer decision-making is extremely complex and never entirely conscious (particularly for extremely complex services, like legal services). Indeed, enforcing truth in advertising is particularly critical because proving the harm of false advertising is so difficult.

Some may counter that, in the much-talked about age of “data darwinism” (much talked about by me, that is), such deceivers will be “outed,” their reputations will suffer, and lawyers who advertise honestly will triumph over time.

Maybe yes. Maybe no.  And that could take a long time.  In the mean time, we have to countenance lawyers lying in advertising?  This might be taking free market laissez-faire “invisible hand” notions too far too soon.

I would like to see the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board address this problem.  Who’s with me? Am I all alone on this?

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