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Whose Name is it Anyway?

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The N.C. State Bar Ethics Committee met last week, and they are still grappling with the Google Adwords opinion.  If you’re not familiar with this issue, it originally arose as a grievance that was filed against an attorney for purchasing the other attorney’s name as a Google Adword.  This means that Attorney A pays for a preferential position on the search results page whenever someone Googles Attorney B’s name.  Attorney A, who is buying the name for ad placement, does not receive exclusive rights to the name, but if he is the highest bidder on Attorney B’s name, he gets the priority advertising.

The question is whether this practice violates the Rules of Professional Conduct.  I’ll be honest, I don’t like it.  My gut tells me that it should not be permitted and there’s something wrong about someone using my name (and my professional reputation) to launch their advertising.  Say it’s my sense of fair play.  But is it misleading to the consumer?   Nope, I can’t say that it is.  The average person running a search of my name would not assume that because another attorney appears in Google’s sponsored links or preferential ad space, that there is any affiliation between us.  Although a prior version of the opinion found that the practice did not violate the Rules, the current proposed ethics opinion on this issue prohibits the practice on the basis of a Rule 8.4(c) violation; that is, the act of purchasing the other attorney’s name, itself, is dishonest.   The majority of the Ethics Committee agreed with the proposed opinion, but there were not enough votes to republish the revised opinion for comment.  As it stands, the opinion is tabled until the January meeting.  In the meantime, the State Bar staff is also looking into the constitutionality of prohibiting this kind of conduct.  Stay tuned…