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Ethics Opinions from the Bar Association of San Francisco


A former judge may not be listed on his law firm's stationary as "Judge John Doe."

May a lawyer who was once a judge be so designated on his letterhead or the letterhead of his law firm when he returns to private practice?


He may not.


The California State Bar Act and Rules of Professional Conduct do not fully cover the matter of letterheads. Rule 2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct generally prohibits the solicitation of professional employment by advertisement or otherwise, and contains certain provisions relating to signs, cards, directory listings and announcements. Its only reference to letterheads pertains to persons who may be certified as specialists by the California Board of Legal Specialization, prohibiting such persons from indicating that fact on their professional cards, letterheads or office signs.

Canon 27 of the original Canons of Professional Ethics of the American Bar Association also dealt generally with the improper solicitation of professional employment by either direct or indirect advertising. In a series of Informal Opinions interpreting Canon 27, the ABA's Standing Committee on Professional Ethics ruled consistently that a lawyer's letterhead should not reflect his prior political office or judicial connection. These opinions are summarized as follows in the ABA publication Opinions of the Committee on Professional Ethics (1967 Edition and June, 1968 Supplement):

Opinion No. 118 (A lawyer's letterhead should not state that he has been states attorney).

Opinion No. 119 (A lawyer's letterhead should not state that he has been a judge).

Opinion No. 120 (A lawyer's letterhead should not state that he is a member or has been a member of a stated bar association, or a Senator, Governor, or a member of Congress).

Opinion No. 1006 (A lawyer who has served as a judge may not, after he has returned to the practice of law, place the designation "Judge" on his stationery or on the door of his office nor may he sign his pleadings and name with the prefix "Judge").

Former Canon 27 was replaced in 1970 by the Disciplinary Rules set forth under Canon 2 of the ABA's Code of Professional Responsibility. DR 2-102 (A) (4) permits a lawyer or law firm to use, if in "dignified" form:

"A letterhead of a lawyer identifying him by name and as a lawyer, and giving his address, telephone numbers, the name of his law firm, associates and any information permitted under DR 2-105. A letterhead of a law firm may also give the names of members and associates, and names and dates relating to deceased and retired members. A lawyer may be designated 'Of Counsel' on a letterhead if he has a continuing relationship with a lawyer or law firm, other than as partner or associate.... The letterhead of a law firm may give the names and dates of predecessor firms in a continuing line of succession."

DR 2-105 permits attorneys specializing in certain areas of the law to so designate themselves, but former judges, as such, are not covered by this rule.

DR 2-102 (A) (2) authorizes professional announcement cards stating new or changed associations or addresses, change of firm name, or similar matters pertaining to the professional office of a lawyer or law firm. Such an announcement card "shall not state biographical data except to the extent reasonably necessary to identify the lawyer or to explain the change in his association, but it may state the immediate past position of the lawyer 11 (Emphasis added.)

DR 2-102 (A) (6) permits the publication of an attorney's background, including public or quasi-public offices held, in a reputable law list or legal directory.

The new Disciplinary Rules thus permit a lawyer's designation as a former judge in an announcement card and a published law list, but not in the letterhead of his firm. This distinction is consistent with the earlier interpretations of old Canon 27.


All opinions of the Committee are subject to the following disclaimer:
Opinions rendered by the Ethics Committee are an uncompensated service of The Bar Association of San Francisco. Opinions are advisory only, and no liability whatsoever is assumed by the Committee or The Bar Association of San Francisco in rendering such opinions, and the opinions are relied upon at the risk of the user thereof. Opinions of the Committee are not binding in any manner upon the State Bar of California, the Board of Governors, any disciplinary committee, The Bar Association of San Francisco, or the individual members of the Ethics Committee.

In using these opinions you should be aware that subsequent judicial opinions and revised rules of professional conduct may have dealt with the areas covered by these ethics opinions.

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