May a Law Firm Designate a Nonequity Partner as a “Partner”?

Although the term “partner” typically denotes a person sharing in the ownership of a business enterprise, some law firms designate nonowner-lawyers as “partners,” “income partners,” or “nonequity partners.” Such designations are typically based on “the achievement by a lawyer of a certain level of experience, status, or authority.”

Does this practice violate the rules of professional conduct that prohibit “false or misleading” communications about a lawyer, a lawyer’s services or a law firm’s services?

No, according to a recent ethics opinion from the North Carolina State Bar Association. See N.C. Bar Formal Op. 2015-9 (Jul. 22, 2016). As long as the designation is not “a sham,” it is unobjectionable:

[A] law firm may designate a lawyer as a partner, regardless of whether the lawyer satisfies the legal definition of that term, if the lawyer was promoted to the position by formal action or vote of firm management or pursuant to the firm’s governing documents. Further, to prevent the public from being misled as to the lawyer’s achievements, the promotion must be based upon criteria that indicates that the lawyer is worthy of the promotion.