Everything. A firm’s name is the core of its brand in a competitive legal market. For better or worse, law firms have never had much choice in their firm name. Just take the last names of the founding partners and string them together. While some firms certainly benefited from this arrangement (see Smart & Biggar or Bird & Bird) the rest of us are left with less appealing options (Jasinski, MacLeod, & Hessing-Lewis doesn’t exactly roll-off the tongue). This is now changing. Chinese firms, such as King & Wood (with whom Skunkworks has worked), have no such requirements. This is the future of legal marketing.
A Brief History of Law Firm Names
- The vast majority of legal practitioners have always and continue to operate under their given names. Because most of your business is likely based on your professional reputation, it makes sense that your name has traditionally been inseparable from your brand. When I was in private practice, I opted for the exotic brand of Jeremy Hessing-Lewis Barrister & Solicitor. This is essentially the same brand name I would have selected 200 years ago.
- The formation of law firms meant partnership names needed to describe multiple professional reputations. This resulted in the tradition of Hessing & Lewis LLP type brands. While a lawyer hiring a junior might get away with not changing the firm’s name (or appending “& Associates”), the status associated with a firm’s masthead meant that when practices merged, so did their names.
- As firms grew, so did their names. I articled at a firm formally known as Lang Michener Lawrence & Shaw LLP that resulted from a series of amalgamations. To remove a partner from the marquee/shingle would have been a slight. Many firms kept the amalgamated legal names even while doing business under an abbreviated version (Lang Michener LLP in this case).
- The traditional names of large law firms are increasingly outdated. Within a profession trying to shake the reputation of being an old boys club, doing business under the brands of long-since dead white men remains a problem. With large, global law firms (as big as 3,800 lawyers) adopting rigid corporate structures, two trends have emerged with regards to the firm’s name. The first is to cut down the masthead to one or two partners at most. In Canada, Blakes LLP, Davis LLP, and Gowlings LLP all went this branding route (most kept their full legal names and simply re-branded under a single name). Alternatively, the acronym route has been equally popular with the likes of BLG and FMC. The renewed interest in firm names has arisen in parallel with an acknowledgement that legal marketing actually matters.
- With the emergence of law corporations, law firms now have the flexibility to choose just about any name (subject to the rules outlined below) for their practice. Some of the local firms include Open Door Law Corporation, Bacchus Law Corporation, and Small Law Corporation.
Law Society Naming Regulations
In BC, the Law Society closely regulates the naming of law firms. The key principles are to ensure that the size of the firm is not misrepresented, that the people involved with the business are not misrepresented, and that the legal status of the firm is identified (sole proprietorship, LLP, or law corporation).
Registering a Business Name
To register a business name in BC alluding to the status as a lawyer (e.g. barrister, solicitor, lawyers, law firm, etc), the corporate registrar requires you must first get written approval from the Law Society of BC. The name will be rejected by the Law Society if it violates any of the rules described below.
The main naming requirements are found under the general marketing rules. See my previous post on this subject. Essentially, your firm name cannot be false, inaccurate, unverifiable, misleading or contrary to the interests of the public. This means I can’t call my firm Jeremy & Associates if its just me. I also can’t name my firm Borden, Ladner, and Gervonis Law Corporation.
LLPs and Law Corporations
Both limited liability partnerships (LLPs) and law corporations, have particular rules in the Law Society Rules. Essentially, the name can’t be confusing or similar to an existing corporate name. Nothing overly stringent.
Given the traditional naming conventions, it tended to be difficult to prevent other firms from using their partners’ names. Run a search for Davies Law and you’ll see what I mean. With the rise of law corporations, trademark issues will begin to appear.
Law Firm Naming Best Practices
The sky is now the limit for law firm naming. If you’re starting a new firm or re-branding your existing firm, there’s no reason to be stuck with the name on your drivers’ license. Here are some of my best practices:
- Use a name people can easily spell (this means you Thorsteinssons).
- Keep it short.
- Make it distinctive and evocative.
- Use your imagination (yes lawyers can do this too).
- Do not use references to the quality of the services themselves (e.g. Quality Law Corporation or Budget Law Group).
- Run both trademark and Google searches.
- Check with the law society before you even start thinking about the rest your branding (such as business cards and letterhead).
If you want a good example of effective naming, have a look at Heritage Law.