The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee recently stated that a judge “must adamantly and genuinely encourage” a law firm “not to publicly acknowledge, promote, or market” the fact that an attorney with the firm is the judge’s child. Florida Advisory Opinion 2016-2. The occasion for the advice was the desire of a law firm to identify an attorney with the firm as the child of a specific judge and explain that the attorney had decided to “follow in the judge’s footsteps” by practicing law in a particular area of Florida. The firm intended to use the information in press releases regarding its hiring of the judge’s child and in the child’s law firm biography.
The judge’s approval of or acquiescence in that plan would obviously violate Canon 2B of the Florida code of judicial conduct: “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others; nor shall a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.” (The comparable rule in the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct is Rule 1.3.) As the Florida committee explained:
The public may be inclined to use this particular law firm because of the specific advertisement of this familial relationship between the judge and attorney child. Furthermore, it gives the public the impression that because the Inquiring Judge’s child is an attorney in the firm, that law firm has a special relationship with the Inquiring Judge or the Inquiring Judge’s colleagues
Recognizing that the law firm might reject the judge’s request not to promote or advertise the parent-child relationship, the committee stated that the judge “is not ethically responsible for the actions of the law firm or any third party once the Inquiring Judge has apprised the third party not to take this action.”
A similar issue has arisen when an attorney whose name has been part of a firm’s name becomes a judge. Advisory committees agree that, as an essential step in the transition to the bench, a new judge must ensure that her name is deleted from her former firm’s name. The name change is required not only by both the code of judicial conduct, but by the requirement of Rule 7.5(C) of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility that the “name of a lawyer holding a public office shall not be used in the name of a law firm, or in communications on its behalf, during any substantial period in which the lawyer is not actively and regularly practicing with the firm.” See Kentucky Advisory Opinion JE-41 (1982) (a new judge has a duty to see that his name is removed from a firm name, and the firm has a “like duty”); Louisiana Advisory Opinion 155 (1999) (a judge may not permit his former law firm to use his name in the firm name); Michigan Advisory Opinion JI-89 (1994) (a judge may not allow his name to remain in the name of his former law firm); New York Advisory Opinion 1989-136 (prior to assuming judicial office, a judge must remove his name from a firm’s masthead). According to its recently released annual report, the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct privately warned a justice of the peace in 2015 that he needed to ensure that his former law firm’s web-site did not give the appearance or leave the impression that he still practiced law with the firm, including, but not limited to, eliminating any reference to the judge as a member of the firm and removing his name from the firm name.
2 committees have addressed a new judge’s responsibility if a former firm refuses to stop using the judge’s name despite the firm’s duty and the judge’s requests.
The New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics received an inquiry from a judge who had learned that his former law firm may still be using his name in some of its printed materials, including letterhead. The judge had called the firm and “forwarded a ‘cease and desist’ letter” alerting it to the ethics issue and asking it to take all necessary measures to remove his “name from the building signage and from any and all printed or displayed materials that the firm may generate.” The committee advised that the judge did not need to take further action, noting the judge cannot control what the firm does and the committee cannot “advise or direct” the firm to take any action. New York Advisory Opinion 2015-19.
Similarly, the Massachusetts Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics received an inquiry from a judge who, in the 2 years since she became a judge, had repeatedly requested her former firm to remove her name from the firm title. Although the firm had removed her name from the listing of attorneys on its letterhead, it asserted that the firm’s name, which still included the judge’s surname, was the property of the legal corporation and that complying with her request would significantly reduce the “goodwill” associated with the firm’s trade name, to its financial detriment.
The committee noted that “it is difficult to envision what other affirmative steps” the judge could take “other than filing a formal complaint with the Board of Bar Overseers or initiating legal action.” The committee concluded that, although it was within the judge’s discretion to file a complaint, she was not required to do so because, even if the firm’s continued use of her name violated the professional responsibility rules, “it would not appear to be the type of violation for which disbarment, or some other type of severe sanction, is likely to result . . . ,” and, therefore, did not trigger the duty to file a complaint. The committee noted that the fact that the judge’s “surname is fairly common is of some relevance, as third parties might not automatically associate” her with the firm, alleviating, to some degree, the concern that the firm was using her name and title for financial gain. Massachusetts Advisory Opinion 2003-9.
These opinions again illustrate the importance to judges (and particularly new judges) of an active judicial ethics advisory committee that can answer an individual judge’s questions and then post the advice on-line to provide easily available guidance for all judges. See the list of committee on the Center for Judicial Ethics web-site here.