A friend of mine is a plaintiff’s lawyer in Boston. We’ve opposed each other on several cases, and our interactions (always on the phone; weirdly, we’ve never met in person) are characterized by good-natured but acerbic jabs. Typically, he would bemoan my clients’ “colossally stupid” behavior. For my part, I would make fun of his firm’s name.
Don’t get me wrong: his firm is one of the most respected plaintiff’s firms in town. But its name follows the classic ego-gratifying law-firm style of putting all the partners’ surnames on the letterhead. With Biglaw firms, this doesn’t matter much, because the name partners tend to be, well, not-so-much alive. And the sheer number of partners at big firms means that ego notwithstanding, most aren’t getting their names on the sign.
But small firms have (by definition) fewer partners — with just as much ego. And they tend to be living. So the firm names are long and subject to frequent change.
Why is this a problem for small firms, and what they should do about it?
As is typical with small firms, my friend’s shop had something like six surnames interspersed with commas, an ampersand, and an “LLP.” But every so often, a partner would leave, or an associate would get promoted. Then they had to go and buy new letterhead, envelopes, business cards, and signs, plus change the website and rerecord outgoing voicemail messages. (My friend’s was something like 90 seconds long. I swear he ended up with several messages consisting of me snoring.) I would then accuse him of taking extra discovery to help defray his stationery costs. He, of course, would deny it, and say something about my client’s colossal stupidity.
But stationery and voicemails aside, constantly changing a firm’s name to reflect a revolving door of partnerships has a more-serious effect on law firms. A firm’s name is usually the first touchpoint of its brand. It is the shorthand placeholder for what people — clients, potential clients, opponents, judges, prospective employees — think about your firm. It is very important, but too many law firms give it short shrift.
As regular readers know, possibly because I’m always yapping about it, I ran my own firm for 13 years. But technically, it was three different entities during that time. When I started as a solo in 1998, I didn’t want to call my new firm the “Law Offices of Jay Shepherd.” That would make it sound exactly like what it was: a guy in a sublet space above a pizza place. (I know: very glam. Although my window looked out at the office building that they used for the exterior of the “Ally McBeal” firm. So there was that.)
Instead, I wanted to go with something a little different, and something that made clear what my practice was. I ended up with “Shepherd Employment Counsel.” I’m not saying it was the best name in the world, but I felt it got the job done.
A year later, I partnered up with a classmate from law school. We had to change the name to reflect the fifty-fifty partnership, but it was important to me that “Shepherd” stay out in front. Not because of my massive ego — OK, not entirely because of my massive ego — but because I wanted the continuity in the firm name. So we became “Shepherd & Ebel, LLP.”
After four years, we amicably parted ways. (He’s now a nationally respected federal civil-rights official.) Name-change time again. (Come to think of it, who was I to make fun of my plaintiff-lawyer friend? I, too, was keeping my local stationer in business.) Again, I wanted something a little different. The firm became “Shepherd Law Group, P.C.” At the time (in 2003), the “law group” part was pretty unusual for Massachusetts. Since then, it’s become more common. (I’m not saying they copied me.) I felt that the “group” part of the name conveyed a little more size and heft to the firm, which grew to six lawyers over the years.
When I took on new partners, I made it clear that we were not going to go the normal small-firm route, and that their names would remain off the door. I wanted consistency in the brand name. Egos would have to defer to branding. (Well, except mine.)
The other consideration is the name’s length. As law firms slowly realize that they are businesses rather than cabals of fancy-pants professionals, it’s starting to dawn on them that clients and others will dictate what the firms are called, regardless of the stationery. In the world of business, Apple Computer, Inc. changed to “Apple Inc.” to reflect the diversity of its products beyond just computers. Federal Express became “FedEx” because that’s what people called them.
Some law firms have started to realize that people never ever say all four, five, or six partner names. No one can remember them anyway, and no one except the name partners even care. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates now goes by the brand name “Skadden,” which is all anyone ever called them. As Elie hysterically reported the other day, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP just transmuted into “Paul Hastings,” which is weird because that’s what the rest of us thought it was anyway. Even Howrey, Simon, Arnold & White became “Howrey LLP” before it became “kaput”. (And no, it was not because it shortened its name. It was, it claimed, because of alternative fee arrangements. As if.)
Besides, obsessing about the names of partners suggests that the firm’s focus is on them, rather than on the clients.
Some firms have dispensed with partner names altogether in favor of true brand names. Seattle’s Summit Law Group is a well-known example. Here in Boston there are my no-billable-hour pals at Exemplar Law, LLC, as well as my friends at Archstone Law Group, PC. The latter used to have a bunch of partner names I couldn’t remember. Once they changed to Archstone, I was able to instantly think of them whenever I needed to refer out corporate work. (Your state might have restrictions on nonpartner firm names, so check your local listings.)
So to paraphrase my plaintiff friend, the old model of firm names is “colossally stupid.” Instead, design your firm name to strengthen your firm’s brand, not to burnish your partners’ egos. You’ll avoid bitter partnership battles, and you’ll save a bundle on stationery costs.
Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.