NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION
Advertisements, employee, letterhead, paralegals
Committee on Professional Ethics
|Opinion #695 – 08/25/1997 (11-97)||Topic: Use of “Certified Legal Assistant” title on letterhead and promotional materials.|
|Digest: Use of “Certified Legal Assistant” title is permissible provided certifying entity meets certain standards and disclosure is made of certifying entity.|
|Code: DR 2-101; DR 2-105(B); DR 1-104(A)(2).|
May an attorney identify a legal assistant as a “Certified Legal Assistant” when the assistant has been certified by the National Association of Legal Assistants?
The contents of letterheads, promotional materials, and business cards are governed by DR 2-101(A) and DR 2-101(D). DR 2-101(A) prohibits the dissemination of information that is false, deceptive or misleading, and DR 2-101(D) describes the type of information that is appropriate to be included in letterheads or promotional materials.
We have previously concluded that DR 2-101(D) permits lawyers to include the names of non-lawyer employees on letterhead or other materials “whenever the inclusion of such names would not be deceptive and might reasonably be expected to supply information relevant to the selection of counsel.” N.Y. State 500 (1978). The listing of paralegals and their services provides the public with information of the type described in DR 2-101(D). N.Y. State 640 (1992). Further, a paralegal may use a business card that lists the name of the firm, the paralegal’s name, and a designation of the paralegal’s non-lawyer status. N.Y. County 673 (1989).
In N.Y. State 640, this Committee considered a paralegal’s use of the title “Public Benefits Specialist,” and noted that New York has not established a certifying authority to prescribe rules regarding when a lawyer may hold himself or herself out as a specialist. We concluded that there was no authority for use of a “specialist” designation by a lawyer or a paralegal, and any such use would be misleading. N.Y. State 640 (1992); Nassau County Opinion 96-11 (1996); DR 2-101(A) (prohibiting lawyer’s dissemination of misleading communication); cf.DR 3-101 (prohibiting attorney from aiding in unauthorized practice of law).
The present inquiry is distinguishable from that at issue in N.Y. State 640 since it involves the phrase “Certified Legal Assistant” rather than a claim of specialization in a particular area. We also note that in Peel v. Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, 496 U.S. 91 (1990), the Supreme Court held that an attorney has a constitutional right under the commercial free speech doctrine to advertise certification as a specialist, subject to any disclaimer required by the state to make the claim of specialization not misleading. The Court found that the standards for certification set forth by the National Board of Trial Advocacy were “objectively clear” and not misleading. Id. at 102. Whatever effect Peel may have on DR 2-105(B)’s limitation on an attorney’s use of the term “specialist,” we conclude that an attorney may include on letterhead and other materials the identification of a non-legal employee as a “Certified Legal Assistant” provided that term is accompanied by the statement that the certification is afforded by the National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”), and provided further that the attorney has satisfied himself or herself that NALA is a bona fide organization that provides such certification to all who meet objective and consistently applied standards relevant to the work of legal assistants. Id.
If such conditions are satisfied, use of the certification will not be misleading, and therefore will not violate DR 2-101(A) or DR 1-104(A)(2).
The question is answered in the affirmative, subject to the conditions set forth above.
 The use of the term “specialist” by lawyers is governed by DR 2-105(B), which provides:
A lawyer who is certified as a specialist in a particular area of law or law practice by the authority having jurisdiction under the laws of this state over the subject of specialization by the lawyers may hold himself or herself out as a specialist, but only in accordance with the rules prescribed by that authority.New York has not conferred jurisdiction upon any authority to certify lawyers as specialists as provided in DR 2-105(B).