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Until just recently, many state bar associations required that law firms be named after their partners. For years, law firms always went by any combination of last names. You know the drill: Donelson & Donelson, or Baker, Thompson & Roe. Essentially, names outside of those parameters were not permitted.
But state by state, that rule is finally changing.
State bars are increasingly allowing firms to choose more creative, consumer-focused names if they wish. In fact, the New York State Bar just changed its law firm naming rules to allow trade names in June of 2020, provided that the name chosen is not “false, deceptive or misleading.” This change effectively opened the doors for New York law firms to choose meaningful and unique names (often referred to as “trade names”) that allude to their legal services.
Despite the fact that the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct allow for firms to use trade names, some states still do not permit it. Notably, Texas has held the line on the rule—even inciting legal action in January 2020 when a Utah law firm filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas (and eight other states), alleging that the ban on trade names was unconstitutional and violated free speech rights. The suit is on hold in Texas, as a proposed revision to the ban will likely be up for a vote in 2021.
The roster of law firms not named after partners is growing. Marketing professionals who advise law firms agree that trade names can be a good option for firms who serve a niche industry or a specific client base (these firms tend to be small, midsize or even solo practices, and many plaintiffs firms also fall into this category).
For example, if your firm specializes in criminal defense or estate planning, a name hinting at that expertise might have more consumer appeal than a traditional name. The same typically can’t be said for larger, full-service law firms that serve a primarily corporate client base. These firms are usually better off with a traditional firm name as to not alienate any of their (many) potential clients.
Generally speaking, prospects who have a more buttoned up culture tend to gravitate toward firms with traditional names. But if your clients consist of tech and startup companies, or if you are a virtual firm, then a non-traditional name might be a good fit.
Beyond consumer appeal, trade names also have the potential to generate more of a sense of ownership amongst non-partner employees. For firms sporting a string of last names above the building entrance, non-partner attorneys and other firm employees may understandably feel a lack of ownership and pride in the firm, because the name itself indicates that the business belongs to someone else. But without that reminder hanging over employees’ heads, there is more opportunity for the firm to foster a sense of pride, ownership and comradery.
Before making a list of potential names for your firm, try putting yourself in the shoes of your clients and ask yourself what type of name you’d be most drawn to. Once you’ve got a few ideas, consider running your top contenders past some trusted clients or colleagues in your industry.
If you can foot the bill, it’s always a good idea to enlist quality market research from a reputable branding company in order to really gauge what the market’s reaction to your prospective name might be.