McLawsen Tower. McLawsen Grand Casino. McLawsen Steaks? My own surname doesn’t lend quite the right panache. Not that I didn’t have the opportunity. When my wife and I got married during grad school we reengineered our last name (merging Walsen and McCraw) and in retrospect could have gone with something catchier.. When it came to naming my immigration law firm, I didn’t want my surname on the masthead. From the, start one of my goals was to build a client experience that was associated with my firm, Sound Immigration, rather than myself personally.
Washington lawyers are permitted to use trade names, so long as they are not misleading. RPC 7.5, cmt. 1. While trade names were relatively unusual just a few years ago, they are now wide-spread. I spoke to my colleagues in the small practice community about why they departed from the Surname Law Firm model, or why they wish they had.
(1) Distinct brand identity from the lawyer(s)
Use of a trade name can be the first step towards building a strong brand identity for a law firm. As Shreya Biswas Ley of LayRoots puts it, a trade name “projects an image of a company rather than a person.” For Shreya and her husband, who advise early-stage businesses,
we wanted to evoke an ethos around helping businesses and families lay solid roots for a successful business and future We went with LayRoots because we were thinking of the huge oak trees in New Orleans where we went to law school and the fact that we love the outdoors.
(2) Ability to grow painlessly
If Surname, Attorney at Law ever wants to expand, she is going to have a challenge. Perhaps your new associate won’t mind working in Surname’s shadow. But a lawyer of equal stature in the community will probably also want equal billing on the letterhead. As IP attorney Mark Jordan (Bracepoint Law) puts it, “most importantly, I never want to get in an argument about whose name goes first on the letterhead.” That will mean at the very least a rebranding to tack on Surname II. Why not make things easier from the get-go?
Michelle Dellino was a law clerk colleague of mine at Kitsap Superior Court, and like me she opened her own firm after our clerkship. Now owner of the eponymous Dellino Law Group, Michelle says in retrospect she would have done it differently.
When I started my practice I initially planned for it to be small, like a true solo practice and decided to use my own name "Dellino Law." But quickly I realized that I wanted to take it in a different direction and began to treat it like for more of a business than just a solo practice and added the dba "Dellino Law Group." If I had foreseen the growth trajectory initially and planned for a small firm rather than a solo practice I would have used a different name for branding.
(3) Brand stability
Brand stability is the flip side of the growth issue. It takes years for a law firm to gain standing in the community as a reliable and trustworthy provider of great legal services. Changing the firm’s name brings the serious communication challenge of ensuring that folks know that You are still You (plus one or more as the case may be). As Loriann Miller (Ardent Law) points out, “I dislike that law firms change their names every time a partner changes.” For that matter, Loriann points out, even if Surname Law Firm remains a one-lawyer shop, what happens when the lawyer gets married?
Name changes are confusing for a public and colleagues who don’t devote much mental bandwidth to your business. Make it easier by sticking with a name that doesn’t need changing.
(4) Communicate your niche.
Having entered the era of the niche law practice, why not use your firm’s name to communicate its niche? Amie Peters focuses on helping longshore workers with employment-related claims. In choosing the name Blue Water Legal, Amie reasons: “My clients earn their livings on the water and they associate with this identity. It's makes it easier for them to call a firm that has a similar identity.”
Naming choice may even positively impact the ever-important search engine rankings. It has long been “known” that Google favors website URLs that include a search term (note www.soundimmigration.com). It can’t hurt to have a practice area featured not only in a URL but in the business name itself.
(5) Ability to sell
During his tenure as WSBA president, Steve Crossland (Crossland Law Offices) worked hard to raise awareness about the challenges of transitioning out of law practice. One common misperception amongst small practice attorneys is that they own a business worth selling, or rather worth buying. To vastly over-simplify insights shared by Steve and others, the closer a firm’s identity and value is tied to a particular lawyer, the harder it will be to sell (i.e., the less market value it has). While a distinct firm name by itself is certainly insufficient, it takes the firm in the right direction for being viewed as an entity. As Shreya (see above) puts it, “we wanted to have the option of creating a saleable asset, including a brand name, that isn't tied to me as an individual.” Also, IP lawyer, Mike Matesky points out that non-surname firms may have an easier time registering their name as a trademark.
(6) Leveling of perceived firm hierarchy
LayRoot’s Shreya Ley makes another great point: surname-rich letterhead tells clients which of the attorneys are the best, or at least might be viewed that way. “We wanted to eventually transition clients to other attorneys who are working for the firm and not have the clients be upset that they're not receiving time with someone whose name isn't on the letterhead.” There might be strategic reasons to encourage precisely that perceived value differential. If partners are billing four times the rate of their associates, then the firm has to create a strong perception (and reality) that the partners are delivering greater value. But for firms like LayRoots and my own that operate largely on flat-rate billing, we have far less financial incentive to bolster the status of the firm’s principals.
(7) Because surnames just don’t work
As Mike Matesky puts it, “I knew that Matesky Law would be a distinctive firm name despite being surname-based, and I was not worried about any potential confusion with other Mateskys out there.” Other surnames might be difficult for your client base - or referral sources - to pronounce. Indian lawyer, Ryan Dreveskracht [sic] comes to mind for some reason.
(8) Tie-in to another business.
Devon Thurtle Anderson has a particularly interesting reason for choosing her firm’s name, Skepsis Legal Solutions. Devon was already running Skepsis Technologies, which helps small businesses with bookkeeping and IT support. Because of ethical restrictions Devin needed to offer services under two different (virtual) roofs, but the similar names will help clients understand the complementary offerings.
(9) Out with the old
Increasingly, using your surname is simply viewed as old school. Devon Thurtle Anderson says, “I feel like the firm-surname is an old model. It projects an image of practicing law in an older, more traditional way.” Likewise, Amie Peters says, “I saw using a family name as being old school. I left an old school firm to do things differently and it started with the name of my firm.”
Now there is nothing inherently wrong with being old school. Some practitioners may want to invoke the trappings of a traditional law practice. But like Devon and Amie, I want to communicate that my firm is taking a progressive approach to law practice.
A version of this post appears as an article in the newsletter of the King County Bar Association