The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct today issued two advisory opinions concerning the political and campaign activities of magistrates and the ethical limitations of lawyer and law firm website domain names as a form of advertising.
Advisory Opinion 2018-4 replaces two prior board opinions that addressed the political and campaign activities of magistrates. Today’s opinion states that magistrates may contribute personal funds to any candidate for public office, except to a candidate for election or re-election to the court on which the magistrate serves. Magistrates may, however, contribute to candidates seeking judicial office on other courts or divisions of their own court.
The opinion advises that magistrates must avoid publicly endorsing or opposing any candidate for public office. However, the opinion points out that a personal contribution of funds to a candidate does not equate to an endorsement.
In addition, the opinion reminds magistrates that participating in traditional campaign activities such as distributing campaign literature, speaking to voters, working on phone banks, and placing yard signs are forms of endorsement prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct. The opinion concludes that an endorsement occurs if a magistrate solicits or receives contributions on behalf of a candidate for any public office.
The new opinion replaces the board’s prior opinions Adv. Op. 1990-24 and Adv. Op. 2002-13. The withdrawn opinions provided guidance consistent with the new opinion but were issued under prior versions of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Advisory Opinion 2018-5 addresses five specific ethical issues implicated by the use of a website domain name by a lawyer or law firm.
The board recognizes that a website is a primary method of communicating with clients and the public, and is also an important tool for lawyers to advertise their services to current and potential clients. Consequently, a website domain name is considered a form of advertising under the Rules of Professional Conduct. Therefore, a lawyer must ensure that the domain name does not result in a false, misleading, or non-verifiable communication.
The board concludes that although a law firm is prohibited from the use of a trade name as a law firm name, the same prohibition does not extend to domain names. Therefore, a domain name can include a name different from the firm’s name as long as it does not violate other advertising rules. The board encourages lawyers to use the name of the lawyer, firm, partners, initials, or other specific identifying criteria in the domain name.
The opinion also cautions lawyers from using a domain name to convey a specialty in an area of the law when the lawyer is not certified as a specialist under Ohio Supreme Court rules, or to designate a geographic location for the lawyer’s practice when the lawyer does not maintain a physical and active practice in that location.