Breaking up a partnership or other business agreement is tough, and the process is fraught with complicated financial as well as emotional perils. One issue that tends to get overlooked is the firm’s website address. All the affected partners can’t keep using it – but can any of them?
Either in the original agreement or the negotiations around the breakup, there is sure to be a clause that specifies which partner retains the legal rights to the site and its URL. That may be a moot point, however, because it is neither logical nor ethical to keep practicing law under a firm name that describes a partnership that no longer exists. In fact, a court in Virginia found that it is illegal to use the name of a former partner who is now in practice at another firm.
The court’s reasoning is based on the premise that current clients and the general public may be deceived into thinking the firm still includes all partners whose names appear in the name. However, their ruling allowed for time to alter the firm’s name in an orderly fashion, as an immediate change “would not serve the interests of the public, including former/potential clients, or the partners in the former firm who collectively built goodwill and created value associated with that firm name.”
At the same time, the court said, making no mention of the firm’s altered composition also holds the potential to mislead site visitors. With that in mind, they prohibited the partner who retains ownership of the website and URL from announcing a new firm name or redirecting to a new URL without informing site visitors that other partner(s) are still practicing, albeit elsewhere.
The findings focused on two principle responsibilities that ensure clients, both current and future, are fully informed so as to retain their fundamental right to choose their own service provider:
- Avoiding the implication that both partners are still present at the renamed firm; and
- Avoiding the implication that one partner is no longer available to serve clients.
While the Virginia ruling is limited in jurisdiction, attorneys might consider their guidance in a firm dissolution situation. Check local and state rulings first, but in the absence of specific guidance for your area consider these strategies to site visitors informed and empowered:
- Include a prominent statement notifying readers that the firm has been re-formed
- Let readers know that both (or all) partners are in practice if this is the case
- Offer full contact information for all previous partners, including links to the relevant websites along with phone numbers, email and physical addresses
Whatever the nature of current relations between the partners, it is to all parties’ advantage to maintain a high degree of professional respect and grace, lest clients and colleagues become uncomfortable interacting with any of the former partners. Providing complete information on your website seems like a fair and civil approach to a difficult situation – and an approach that should meet legal as well as social mandates.