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What's in a name?

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Published on 11/23/09

It used to be a given at law firms: letterhead stationery engraved with the firm name, with all four, five, or six partners listed at the top or down one side of the sheet. For many, it was the only form of "advertising" in which they engaged

Perhaps it still exists at some firms. Much more common, however, is shortening the firm name to match common usage (does anybody really refer to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as anything other than "Skadden?"), or developing an entirely new name based on the type of law a firm practices.

The advantage of calling yourself the "Business Connection" or "Family Law Center" is the appeal to that segment of the marketplace that generates the bulk of your business.

It's a way of specializing without going through the specialization process that some state bar associations require for focusing on a practice area. This is purely a marketing consideration, to be made only if you've decided in advance that you want to serve only one practice area. If you expect to expand into other practice areas, it is not applicable.

Traditionally, when a lawyer or lawyers open a firm they take their own names. One reason is ego, but another is that they are general practitioners without a specialty. They may migrate to several specialties as they become more seasoned in their practice just by virtue of their clientele.

Another reason for using your name is that your name, to some degree, becomes your brand. When you want people to come to you, how are they going to find you in the phone book or through an Internet search engine? If clients want to refer friends or associates to you, how are they going to describe you?

As you grow and more partners are added to the firm, it becomes a choice as to whether the firm name grows as well. Inevitably, over time, the first couple of names for a firm are the ones that clients and prospects associate with it. To go contrary to that "share of mind" is at odds with your marketing purpose.

But when you see five or six or seven names in a letterhead of a smaller firm, it is inevitably because the other partners believe they need it for their own personal marketing purposes.

One final consideration is ethics. Marketing regulations adopted several years ago by the New York State Bar assert that "a lawyer in private practice shall not practice under a trade name."

This would seem to require that if a firm is sold, the selling lawyer must retire and the purchasing lawyer must delete the seller's name from the firm; yet, it is often the "trade name" — or selling lawyer's name — that is an important part of the purchase price. Changing the firm name might diminish the intangible "good will value" of the firm name. However, firms with bad publicity and malpractice and disciplinary matters hanging over them have little good will — no matter what the firm is called.

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