Breaking up a business partnership can be complicated and difficult, which explains why these dissolutions are often referred to as “business divorces.” One of the key issues is dividing the assets fairly, just as in a personal divorce, and while there are no child custody issues to deal with, a remaining named partner will usually assume ‘custody’ of the firm’s URL.
A firm’s web address is a significant asset that contributes directly to the future income and success of both (or all) partners. This is part of your firm’s brand and reflects the work partners have contributed through marketing, public relations and building relationships with clients. It’s not practical for each partner to continue to use the same URL but what does this mean for ‘noncustodial’ partners – are they out of luck? And since multiple names are often included in the firm’s web address, is it appropriate or legal for one partner to continue using it, or must all abandon the value of their established URL?
State courts in Virginia have addressed the question of URL use after a law firm breakup, and their treatment of the issue offers a reasonable approach that partners in many types of professional services, and in every state, may find useful.
The court found that law firms may not continue to use the name of a former partner in their URL after that partner has joined a different practice. However, in many cases changing the URL immediately “would not serve the interests of the public, including former/potential clients, or the partners in the former firm who collectively built goodwill and created value associated with that firm name.”
The court provided guidance that focuses on requiring accurate information to give potential and current clients the necessary information to choose the services of the partner they prefer. The key point is to not mislead site visitors by making it seem that one partner or another is no longer available (albeit at another firm). In practical terms, this means letting visitors know how to reach all former partners to avoid the implication that all clients will now be served by the partner who retained rights to the firm’s URL.
Jonathan Hawkins discussed this topic on his excellent blog, A Lawyer’s Handbook. He suggests a solution that meets the standard set by the Virginia court and protects the rights of all partners: Until the original URL is no longer functioning, have it redirect to a new landing page. That page should:
- Inform site visitors that the firm has been rebranded under a new name
- Let visitors know where each former partner is now practicing, assuming all are still in practice
- Offer site links and other contact information for each of the partners
Hawkins’ suggestion provides a neat solution that meets the respective needs of clients, partners and the general public. I’ve seen examples of this done well on the websites of professional services providers, with news of the breakup handled gracefully to allow clients a high level of comfort as they reach out to their preferred partner.
If a business divorce is in your future, explore the legal requirements for handing your current URL in your state and profession. In the absence of explicit guidelines that conflict with this fair and functional policy, I suggest you go with his strategy to protect your brand along with everyone’s rights.