Making Your Firm a Household Name

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Remember how much time you and your spouse spent picking names for your children? Remember how important it seemed to choose names that would identify those children for the rest of their lives?

Well, no less time should be spent considering the name of your law firm.

Traditionally, when lawyers open a firm, they take their own names. One reason is ego, of course. A related reason 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, more names will correspondingly appear on the masthead. The partners believe such advertising will serve their own personal marketing purposes.

Inevitably, over time, the first couple of names for a firm are the ones that clients and prospects associate with it. Thus, it is common to shorten the firm name to match common usage (does anybody really refer to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as anything other than "Skadden"?). To act contrary to that "share of mind" is seemingly at odds with your marketing purpose.

But what about a non-traditional approach? In a growing trend, some firms are developing entirely new names based on sector of law.

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. As purely a marketing consideration, it's a way of specializing without going through the specialization process that may be required for focusing on a practice area.

But be careful: Such a move should 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 If you expect to expand into other practice areas, the name will be misleading and thus no longer applicable.

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 because the seller's name often acts as a "trade name."

However, it is often the trade name — or selling lawyer's name — that's an important part of the purchase price. Changing the firm name might diminish the intangible goodwill value of the firm name.

Consider state rules and regulations carefully to find ways to keep the seller's name intact while adding your own brand to the letterhead. Of course, firms with bad publicity from malpractice or disciplinary matters hanging over them have little goodwill, no matter what the firm is called.

A generic firm name can be as effective as a proper one, as it can symbolize to potential clients that they belong to the firm — not to the lawyer — which can be a comporting thought for lawyer and client alike.

There are very few attorneys who have successfully branded themselves as personalities, like Melvin Belli or Johnnie Cochran. Most clients presume that each lawyer is as competent as the next.

Institutionalizing the work done for a given client can involve several attorneys in the delivery of legal services, even if one lawyer remains the client's primary contact. If clients place primary reliance on the firm as an institution, and the individual lawyers can benefit from the strength of the whole, the right name might be no name at all.

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