On review of an opinion of the Advisory Committee on Attorney Advertising.
For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.
With the exception of nonprofit legal aid or public interest law firms, the Rules of Professional Conduct ("RPC") prescribe that the name under which a lawyer or law firm practices is permitted to contain only "the full or last names of one or more of the lawyers in the firm or office or the names of a person or persons who have ceased to be associated with the firm through death or retirement." RPC 7.5(a). The Committee on Attorney Advertising ("Committee") correctly interpreted this rule as barring a non-commercial organization providing legal service by its attorneys on a prepaid basis from using a letterhead referring to its organizational or plan name because that name itself did not refer to or contain the name of any lawyer actually providing legal services. Implicated in this decision is the preliminary issue of whether such an organization is improperly engaged in the practice of law.
We conclude that non-commercial, internally-staffed prepaid legal service plans of the type dealt with in this opinion serve important and useful functions and provide needed services. Accordingly, we call on the Civil Practice Committee to recommend
for our consideration a revision of our Court Rules expressly to authorize such organizations to engage in the practice of law.
We direct, further, that the Rule currently restricting the content of lawyer and law firm names should be modified to permit a non-commercial organization engaged in providing prepaid legal services to use its own name as part of its official designation or professional letterhead in connection with its practice of law, subject to certain additional conditions relating to full disclosure
"1115 Legal Service Care" (the "program", "service" or "plan") is the name used by a prepaid legal service program funded by employers pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement negotiated with 1115 Joint Board, a labor organization. The program is said to qualify as a tax-exempt group legal service plan under Section 120 of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. § 120. It is further said to be an employee benefit plan defined and regulated under provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 to -1461, and to be organized in accordance with Section 302 of the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA") as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 186. The program operates in three states, New Jersey, New York, and Florida. The plan operates in New Jersey and New York with its own attorneys, while legal services in Florida are provided by a private law firm retained by the program.*fn1
1115 Legal Service Care attorneys are employed directly by the plan on a full-time basis and work exclusively on matters
covered by the plan. The clients of the plan are employee members of 1115 Joint Board. The attorneys are not permitted to accept as clients persons not covered by the service, nor are they permitted to recommend other counsel to such persons. The attorneys thus do not offer or provide legal services to members of the general public. They are not affiliated with any private law firm, and do not constitute a partnership or professional corporation. The program itself is administered by a board of trustees, representing both labor and management, who do not involve themselves in the rendering of legal services. All pleadings are signed in the name of the individual staff attorney assigned to a particular matter, with the name of the service's Legal Director also indicated, as well as the address of the program's office at which the matter is being handled. Each of the program's six offices maintains its own Attorney's Trust Account, to which only program attorneys have access.
The plan and its attorneys in the New York and New Jersey offices seek to use the proper name "1115 Legal Service Care" on the letterhead of their office stationary, which is used in professional correspondence in the regular practice of law. The name quite obviously focuses on the identity or nature of the program as one involving legal representation and services in connection with the interests of the 1115 Joint Board labor organization. This is made clear by additional information that appears at the bottom of the page containing the letterhead, namely, the words "A Multi-Employer Funded Legal Service Plan Established Through Collective Bargaining." The letterhead also contains other information. It lists the addresses and telephone numbers of the program's six offices, two of which are in New Jersey and four in New York. It further lists the names of thirteen lawyers, accompanied by a parenthetical indication of the ...