What's In a Name? For Law Firms, Not So Much
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of professional codes of conduct, in large part because I think they end up hindering the professionals who have to adhere to them, rather than helping the people they are intended to protect (lawyers and consumers, in this case). Probably the main reason I stopped practicing law was that I felt like I had no ability to create anything new. Everything was based on precedent, and I felt severely constrained by all the damn rules, including the ethics rules.
I also take issue with lawyer codes of conduct being labeled “ethics” rules. Is it “unethical” to share fees with nonlawyers? To solicit clients directly? To not understand technology to a reasonable degree? I think not. But these are among the things your professional overseers have decided are impermissible, based on the proposed theory that they know how to protect you, the profession and your clients better than you do.
Of course, most of the time, when legal professional ethics are being addressed, these aren’t Kantian ethical tangles that we’re trying to untie. Shooting someone in the face is probably unethical. Also, stealing money from widows and orphans. Avoiding using a brand name for your law firm? I don’t think so.
Great. Now that we’ve removed the morality question from this discussion, it makes it easier to discuss legal ethics rules by instead drawing on an analysis of their practicality.
So, you know what really grinds my gears? The fact that some states will not allow law firms to use brand names.
Let’s start with a little background before I tell you exactly why these rules are as dumb as a bag of hammers.
Law firm naming conventions are addressed near the tail end of the American Bar Association Model Rules(which are not binding, but are merely suggestions for implementation into state ethics codes, which have actual application) and the state ethics codes, at Rule 7.5. And, broadly speaking, there are three types of law firm naming ethics rules, as follows:
Brand names are OK.
Brand names are absolutely not OK, ever.
You can’t use brand names, but carve-outs exist for “lite” branding options.
Massachusetts and California allow brand names. Ohio and Texas do not. New York does not, but it does allow for specialty URLs like familylaw.com. Georgia does, but requires that a brand name includes the name of a lawyer.
The idea is less to help lawyers than it is to protect the public from receiving false or misleading information — even though that definition is already separately codified at Rule 7.1. Meaning that, for most ethics agencies, brand names are not per se false or misleading; but if they actually were, they could be rooted out anyway.
But we already said this isn’t really about ethics. This ain’t “Snowpiercer” or even “Avengers: Endgame.”
So, in the first instance, how is the public protected by the fact that some lawyers can’t use brand names? Short answer: It is not. Long answer: Doesn’t it help the public when lawyers use brand names? What does a legal consumer gain from a law firm name like Anderson & Jones? Outside of the limited brand utility that a law firm creates (“Anderson & Jones ” becomes synonymous with the law like Ford becomes synonymous with cars — that’s unlikely to happen), that name tells you nothing about the product that the law firm delivers. Doesn’t a brand name like “The Family Law Center of Denver” better educate the public about what a firm does?
Nor is this “false or misleading.” In fact, it tells the legal consumer exactly what the law firm does, and where it does it. By and large, it’s more truthful than “Anderson & Jones,” which could mean anything, and which has to become a developed brand before attached services are associated with it in the public mind. There’s no more truthful advertising than a business name like Toys ‘R’ Us, and it also allows for a great head start on affiliating service notions with brand notions. (Assuming you don’t eventually screw it up and have to declare bankruptcy.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with building a brand based on name partners or important figures. The automotive industry has done it forever, e.g., Ford, Chevrolet, DeLorean. Eventually, the humans behind those names fade into the past, leaving in their wake only the brand.
Nor is it inappropriate to create a brand name out of whimsy, though. Did it damage the public in any way because “Apple” records sold music and “Apple” computers sold technology and not actual apples? As far as I’m concerned, you should be able to call your law firm “Snow Leopards and Beans.” If you’re that brave, go ahead and build that brand, hoss.
The point is that lawyers should have the choice to educate legal consumers about their business as they see fit. That starts with individual lawyers being able to build meaning behind their firm’s messaging by creating a name for it that resonates with them and their clients.
Some ethics codes refer specifically to the potential for consumer confusion surrounding law firms that would produce brand names too close to the names of legal aid organizations or public institutions. But let’s be real. If you’re stupid enough to call your law firm “Legal Aid of Greater Boise” or “The Montana Supreme Court,” it’s probably time to look for a less taxing profession.
I understand that this concern derives from the close cases like “Neighborhood Legal Services.” But, again, if you are intent on running a for-profit business and are getting dozens of queries from legal aid clients, then you screwed up; change your damn name.
Some ethics codes also implicate the potential for lawyers to be able to impermissibly advertise or imply a relationship with a government agency or charitable institution. How this negatively affects lawyers, the public or those agencies, I do not know. What does the firm’s name have to be for a lawyer to relay (intentionally or inadvertently) that he has some influence over such an organization, in a way that’s actually understandable to a consumer? Is it “We’re Friends With Judge Johnson Legal PC”? Or, the “We Know People at Legal Aid and Stuff Law Firm LLC”? I mean, come on. My thesis with respect to this question is similar to my preferred approach to most professional ethics issues: Let the market sort it out.
For states that do allow half-measures toward brand names, like the use of tag lines or specialty URLs … why? What is so inherently valuable about a random lawyer’s name, such that it requires this level of advertising protection? Every law firm website already includes bio pages for its lawyers. Lawyers list their professional affiliations on their social media and directory profiles. Every law firm letterhead I’ve ever seen lists the attorneys’ names. In many cases, those names are attached to jurisdictional limitations. This information is readily available to consumers. There is no longer a requirement to force lawyers to use their own names to name their law firms — the logic behind the rule was built at a time when that information was not as readily available in the pre-client stage as it is now.
It could also be argued that these existing naming prohibitions are sexist. I’ve spoken with a number of young female lawyers who are launching their own practices, but who are reluctant to use their own last names in case they get married, or because they’re already engaged, and want to alter their name. Not to mention women who get divorced and want to revert to their maiden names.
In an era when brand-building is more important than ever, and when online search results are built on the back of name recognition, it is no small thing to change your name and be forced to change your firm name. In addition to the examples above, this point becomes even more relevant for a society in which some men are choosing to adopt their wives’ maiden names or are hyphenating their own last names. Same-sex and transgender couples could also produce multiple different variants of name combinations.
How does all that reconcile with the existing ethics regime? It doesn’t. Forcing lawyers to use their own names to brand law firms can lead to inherently unfair results.
To Be Pep Boys, or Not To Be Pep Boys … That Is the Question
What if Pep Boys was called Rosenfeld, Strauss, Jackson & Radavitz, PLLC? That sounds dumb and unlyrical, right?
So, why do we still have law firms named Boring & Boring, Payne & Fears LLP. Low, Ball & Lynch, Bicker & Bicker, Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen and Ziffren, Brittlebaum, Bianca, Fischer, Gilbert & Zwieck-Stiffleman LLP? (For reals: None of those names is made up.)
What in the name of all that’s holy is going on?
I understand that some law firms are currently forced to use the names of their lawyers in the firm’s name. But for those of you who aren’t, why do you keep doing it and setting up yet another marketing hurdle for yourself?
In most cases, the culprit is probably inertia: “We’ve always done it this way” — the six favorite words of every traditionalist lawyer. Certainly, that’s part of it. But lawyers are also slow to change because they don’t recognize that there is value in change — and not just an intrinsic notion of value. I’m talking about branding your firm better so that you can make more actual money. Like dollar, dollar bills, y’all.
Why Use a Brand Name?
So let’s talk about why using a brand name for your law firm is valuable, and why you should go that route if you have the option.
First, a brand name can more fully describe what your law firm does and what it means to you. So, if you include a reference to your practice areas in a brand name, there’s the potential for immediate recognition from legal consumers. That recognition can be a better way to build the bridge from lead to conversion because it takes less work in terms of brand identification. That one’s kind of obvious. But brand names can pack some other meanings, no less significant.
One of my favorite brand names ever was created by a Boston attorney who decided to focus on representing folks in the startup tech space in the city. A lot of activity in that area was focused on the Fort Point Channel neighborhood of Boston. So, he called his firm “Fort Point Legal.” That’s brilliant. If you understand the value of a niche practice and are able to focus on a specific practice area and specific section of a metropolitan area, you can accomplish big things.
Brainstorming a Firm Name (Please Do Get Weird)
You can use a number of things that relate to your practice to inform how you name — and thus brand — your law firm.
Maybe it’s a neighborhood … or a region, a city or a local landmark.
Maybe it’s a quality of your representation or skills that you want to emphasize. And maybe you feel that quality is best represented by your spirit animal. (Texas Law Hawk, anyone?)
Maybe you focus your brand name on something that will appeal to your client. If you’re a patent attorney working with scientists, maybe you call yourself “Lab Law” or “Invent Legal” and incorporate a beaker into your logo.
Or, maybe you come up with something better than those lame names I just tried. Let your freak flag fly. Treat yo’self.
When I have brand name discussions with my consulting clients, I always tell them to please do get weird. No idea is too strange. The fact is, if something is meaningful to you, you are more likely to imbue that meaning with passion in the work that you do. In this way, settling on a brand name also spurs your creativity in other areas. If you’re willing to take the supposed risk on a brand name, maybe you won’t use a gavel or columns or the scales of justice in your logo. Maybe you’ll opt for a color scheme that isn’t (wait for it) blue, gray and white. Maybe you’ll take some chances with more images in your marketing. Or you’ll opt to produce more videos. Taking one step is, well, the first step. You may be surprised by how making one creative choice brings to bear many more.
In a market as competitive as legal services, the more differentiation points you can find, the more appealing you become to increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumers. That just might be the difference between converting a client and losing one.
When It’s Time to Sell
Using a brand name also makes sense for the purposes of selling a law practice. Let’s face it, solo and small firm lawyers are not going to be able to scale to the point where their names become synonymous with a process or practice area in any truly significant way. There is no Carnegie Steel in the solo and small firm crowd. And, because jurisdictional and ethical requirements exist as they do, law firms are more constrained in their growth than most small businesses would be anyway. So, when a solo or small firm attorney tries to sell her law firm, it’s usually a pipe dream — all she’s selling is her name and whatever work in progress exists at the point of sale. As soon as she walks out the door, the future viability of that law firm is completely up in the air — and is more likely than not to pop like a pinned helium balloon, soon thereafter.
But wait: Brand names also make law practices more saleable. If you can remove your own name from your law firm name, you then remove the inevitability of clients wanting to deal with only you. Once that expectation is cut out (or limited), you’re in a position to sell a brand, not a person. When that original owner exits, the brand has a far better chance of survival than the name walking out the door — literally. That mitigation of risk, that increase in value, means something to a savvy investor — especially if that investor is a young lawyer, hungry for a jumpstart on practice life.
Think about it: Some company would pay a lot of money to acquire the name Coca-Cola; but, would they pay top dollar to acquire Dr. Pemberton’s Cocaine-Infused Powdered Soft Drink Co.?
Let’s Change Those Rules
Legal ethics rules are severely outmoded and the low-hanging fruit is these silly prohibitions on law firms using brand names.
Those rules grew out of a fundamental misunderstanding about law firm marketing and legal consumer expectations. Unfortunately, the gulf between the state of the rules and the reality of modern law practice continues to grow. That means lawyers are hamstrung in their marketing efforts while trying to survive in one of the world’s most competitive small business environments. That helps neither the lawyer nor the consumers of legal services they purport to serve.
It’s time for regulators to get on brand.