Nobody ever said breaking up a professional partnership was easy. Dividing the assets fairly is tough, and few issues are more contentious than what happens to the firm’s current clients – or its website. Who keeps the URL? After all, you’ve both worked to build the brand it represents. And if it contains both names, does everyone lose all the value it contains?
Although one partner will probably keep the rights to the website and URL, obviously that won’t work in the long term. You don’t want to advertise your accounting firm as Doolittle & Billum when Doolittle is now part of a competitor’s practice. That’s not fair to either partner, and misleading for site visitors as well.
State courts in Virginia considered the issue of URLs after the dissolution of a law partnership, and their findings are equally relevant for accountants and other professional services providers around the country. If your area does not provide specific guidelines for handling this scenario you may want to consider the guidance from the Virginia court.
The court found that it is illegal to continue using former partner’s name in the web address of a firm if the partner is now practicing elsewhere, but that the URL change did not have to be immediate. Changing the site name right away, they reasoned, “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.”
At the same time, the court said, making no mention of the firm’s altered composition would mislead the public. With that in mind, they prohibited the partner who retains ownership of the website and URL from announcing a new firm name or redirecting to a new URL without informing site visitors that the other partner is still practicing, albeit elsewhere.
Choosing the provider of their own preference is a fundamental right of the individual, so the court’s discussion focused on two key responsibilities:
- Avoiding the implication that both partners are still present at the renamed firm, and
- Avoiding the implication that one partner is no longer available to serve clients.
In practical terms, it is relatively simple to meet the standard set in the Virginia court opinion. Jonathan Hawkins, author of the excellent legal blog, A Lawyer’s Handbook, sets out a straightforward and functional strategy for complying with their guidance:
“…the fairest and most ethically sound approach might be (always check your local rules and opinions) for the old firm’s URL to direct the public to a landing page that includes
- a statement that the law firm no longer exists in its prior form;
- that the partners are now practicing separately at different firms (if true); and
- provide contact information of each lawyer (address, phone, email, and hyperlinks to their new websites).”
I’ve seen this approach in action multiple times, with most sharing the relevant information gracefully enough to allow clients a high degree of comfort in their future interactions with both former partners. You probably won’t ever enjoy going through a business divorce in your accounting firm, but this sensible plan for handling URL issues following the breakup may make at least one aspect a little easier.