PHOENIX - The next murder mystery you read could have been written by an Arizona attorney. But you won't know it.
In a formal legal opinion, the Ethics Committee of the State Bar of Arizona has approved lawyers' using pen names when they are doing things unrelated to the practice of law. But the opinion warns that there are limits to the use of a fake identity.
The query comes from an unknown attorney - and not just because the person is hoping for a side career as a writer. The Bar does not divulge who requests formal opinions.
According to the query, someone who is a practicing attorney in Arizona writes murder mystery novels. He wishes to use a pen name or other pseudonym when writing the books.
The issue arises because there are written rules that prohibit an attorney from making "false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer's services." That is defined in the rules to include "a material misrepresentation of fact" or omission.
In the unsigned opinion, the Ethics Committee said there can be issues with a fake name.
"In our view, a lawyer who practices law under a name materially different from that which appears on the records of the State Bar of Arizona makes a statement about himself or herself that is at least misleading," the opinion reads.
"A client or other third party who is given the different name may not be able to verify the lawyer's eligibility to practice law, obtain the lawyer's address, telephone number, or other contact information," it continues. And the lack of an accurate name also could hamper the ability to determine any prior disciplinary action taken against the lawyer.
But the committee said those concerns do not exist for nonlegal activities. The opinion says the attorney can "adopt any name by which the lawyer chooses to be known."
The only caveat, the panel said, is there is "no fraudulent or improper motive for doing so."
It is not only when an attorney seeks a writing career that the issue of names becomes important.
In the same ethics ruling, the committee noted that there are situations in which a female attorney intends to marry and take her husband's name for social and personal purposes. But she wants to continue to practice with her original name.
According to the Ethics Committee, the same basic rules apply: The lawyer is entitled to refer to herself by her husband's name - and not the name under which she is licensed - in any situation that does not involve the actual practice of law and where there is no intent to defraud.