OFFICE AND BUILDING SIGNS ¾ It is a violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility for a lawyer to have as an office sign that is (1) a free-standing sign not attached to a building; (2) a sign that extends above the roofline of the building; (3) a sign on an awning or canopy extending in front of the office; or (4) a sign in a lawyer's office window not on or near the door of the office.
Is it permissible for a lawyer to have (1) a free-standing sign not attached to a building; (2) a sign that extends above the roofline of the building; (3) a sign on an awning or canopy extending in front of the office; or (4) a sign in a lawyer's office window not on or near the door of the office? The signs displaying the location and address of the law office contain only the usual customary designation such as:
"LAW OFFICES OF JOHN DOE" or "DOE & DOE, ATTORNEYS AT LAW".
Disciplinary Rule 2-102(A)(3) reads, in relevant part, as follows:
"A lawyer or law firm shall not use . . . office signs . . . or similar professional notices or devices, except that the following may be used if they are in dignified form . . . (3) a sign on or near a door of the office and in the building directory identifying the law office." (Emphasis added.)
Ethical Consideration 2-9 reads, in relevant part, as follows:
"The traditional ban against advertising by lawyers, which is subject to certain limited exceptions, is rooted in the public interest. Competitive advertising would encourage extravagant, artful, self-laudatory brashness in seeking business and thus could mislead the layman."
Ethical Consideration 2-10 reads, in relevant part, as follows:
"Methods of advertising that is subject to the objections stated above (Ethical Consideration 2-9) should be and are prohibited . . . For example, a lawyer may be identified in the classified section of the telephone directory, in the office building directory . . . But at all times the permitted notices should be dignified and accurate."
Disciplinary Rule 2-102(A)(3) is a successor to Canon 24, Canons of Professional Ethics, which read:
"A member should not solicit professional employment by circulars or advertisements . . . and all other like self-laudation should be avoided."
In the considered opinion of this committee, none of the signs inquired about can be ethically justified under the Code of Professional Responsibility. The Disciplinary Rule requires that the sign be "on or near the door of the office" and any of the signs listed would be a per se violation of that ethical prohibition. A law office sign should be for the sole purpose of identifying the office for someone who is already looking for that particular lawyer, and should not be designated so as to attract the lay public.
The State Bar of Texas Committee on Professional Ethics has ruled on lawyers' signs on three previous occasions. Each opinion gives some guidance in this field. In Opinion 38 rendered by this Committee in May 1951 by a 6-4 vote, a neon sign approximately five feet long and two feet high containing the attorney's name, telephone number, over the entrance of his office in a suburban shopping center, was held proper. The value of that opinion as precedent was seriously weakened and probably overruled in Opinion 44 rendered in February 1952 in which two neon signs, on two sides of a corner downtown building occupied by a law firm, contained the name of the lawyers and letters approximately two feet high, the entire sign extending ten to twelve feet along the side of the building was held improper. By a 9-0 vote, the State Bar of Texas Committee on Professional Ethics held:
"This question has caused the committee a great deal of concern, especially in view of its Opinion 38, in which it was held that a smaller neon sign in a suburban shopping center was not in violation of the Canon of Ethics. That Opinion was rendered by previous committee and was not unanimous." (Emphasis added.)
"This committee is unanimous in its Opinion that the sign described constitutes commercial advertising and is in violation of Canon 24. The committee recognized the difficulty in establishing or applying a rule for Canon regarding signs that would fit every situation and feels a decision will have to be made on each set of facts and circumstances presented. The committee feels that signs which serve merely to designate the attorney's office should be permissible and should be conservative under all the circumstances and should not, in any event, approach commercial advertising."
Opinion 357 rendered in March 1971 by this Committee held that the use of a neon sign approximately six feet by two feet with the firm name of attorneys thereon illuminated at night, some several feet from the entrance of the law offices would be in violation of the Canon of Ethics. In the opinion of this Committee, that ruling is direct authority for the prohibition of the above sign. Wise Legal Ethics (2d ed.) 150 (1970) reads:
"A shingle, or other designations on doors, windows, or elsewhere the firm name or the names of the attorneys practicing on the premises should be of modest size. The test as to whether or not its size is ethical, depends on whether it is intended to enable a person to find an already selected lawyer or to attract the attention of any person who might be looking for a lawyer, any lawyer."
None of the above signs could be characterized as "on the door." At best, it might be argued that such signs are "near" the door. In the opinion of the Committee, "near" as used in this Disciplinary rule, must mean immediately adjacent to the door or as reasonably close thereto, as practicable. A free-standing sign, a sign that extends above the roofline, a window sign away from the door or an awning, cannot fit within the Disciplinary Rule. Each of the above signs, are calculated to attract a lay person who has not previously selected an attorney. None of the above signs can be said to merely be assisting a person in finding the office of an attorney previously selected. In the opinion of this Committee, all of the above signs are certainly not "conservative" and "approach commercial advertising".
The foregoing ruling is in complete accord with the rulings of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Professional Ethics. In Informal Decision No. 510, the American Bar Association Committee held:
"Since the name of the law firm appears on the entrance to the building, the use of the words `law office' and the names of the partners on the windows serve no useful purpose except that of advertising by informing the public that lawyers practice at this location and to give the names of the attorneys. This violates Canon 27. It is also lacking in the dignity necessary to uphold an honorable profession. This Committee also believes there is a similar violation in the case of lawyers who put their names on two or three windows, or even on one window, unless there were no street numbers or outside door available for the placing of the lawyer's name." (Emphasis added.)
In Informal Decision No. 868, the American Bar Association Committee held, in part:
"The lawyer in the make up of his sign will of course be bound by the ethics of the legal profession . . . if the sign is to attract attention, it is improper."
In Informal Decision No. C800, the American Bar Association Committee stated:
"We also believe the sign should be one in good taste and not a large gawdy sign designed to attract attention, but one which would merely be of information as to where the office is located. If the sign referred to in your letter is in the nature of a directory on the outside of the building or in the entrance of a lobby and other names are listed there with it, as is customary in a directory, and the sign is not intended for advertising purposes, and such signs are customary in the locality, then, in our opinion, it would appear to be proper."
It might be argued that in one set of circumstances or another, that any of the above characterized signs, might be "dignified" and "near" the door. However, all such signs must fall squarely within our ethical prohibitions. To allow any of the above signs would allow for additional publicity. The above signs could be brightly colored, could be lighted at night, and could be increased in size. Thus, unless a sign is on the door of an office, or is immediately adjacent thereto, or as close thereto as reasonably possible, the sign is prohibited.
The Committee is aware that in certain instances, attorneys' names are placed on signs, that are free-standing in nature, along with other tenants of the building, and several feet away from the office building. In the opinion of the Committee, a sign with an attorney's name thereon listed with other tenants of the building, would not be an ethical violation as that would constitute a directory of the building. See: Informal Decision No. 1214, American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, February 9, 1972. However, if the attorney directly or indirectly aided in the construction of the sign, or is the only person so listed on the sign, or his name is distinctly listed on the sign, then such would not be a directory of the building and certainly would not be of dignified form.