Getting to name things is satisfying. Unfortunately, we don’t get to do it that often. A few pets, maybe a couple of kids—though usually someone else, like the other parent, wants to weigh in on those decisions. And not many of us have the kind of cash that enables us to name a stadium or even a sprawling estate.
If you own your own law practice, though, you finally have something that you get to name all by yourself (or with your partners, if you have them). It’s a momentous decision. So where do you start?
The obvious option (and the one most law firms choose) is to name the firm after the owner or partners: “The Law Office of Sam Seaborn, PLLC,” or “Seaborn & Lyman, P.C.” Especially if you’ve been toiling away at a law firm with somebody else’s name over the door, it can be especially rewarding to literally hang out a shingle with your name on it. After all, you worked hard to establish your own firm. Why shouldn’t it have your name?
There are some real advantages to naming your law practice after yourself, aside from pride of ownership. First and foremost, it lets prospective clients know who is running the show and can foster a sense of personal connection with the attorneys. In addition, if your family name is well-known and respected in the community you’ll be serving, people may automatically associate a firm sharing that name with positive qualities. And, of course, naming your law firm after yourself is traditional, which itself implies stability.
Naming a law firm after the owner or partners is straightforward and unlikely to confuse or mislead anyone. What’s more, the bar associations of some states may have ethics rules that dictate what a law firm may be named. Naming the firm after the partners almost certainly will not run afoul of those rules. In a nutshell, using your own name above the door of your law firm is never a bad idea (unless you are unlucky enough to have a name that suggests unflattering things about your firm).
There are even circumstances in which your law firm might be named after a person other than yourself. For instance, if you are purchasing or assuming leadership of a law firm established by someone else, keeping that person’s name on the shingle, even if they are retired or deceased, can be a way of keeping continuity and maintaining the goodwill the firm has accumulated over time.
All of that said, naming your law firm after a person can be a missed opportunity. Like naming your dog Spot, it’s a safe choice. If you are establishing your own firm, though, safety probably isn’t your top priority. After all, if it were, you would have stayed at the firm with someone else’s name over the door.
Since you will probably only name one law firm, maybe two, in your career, you want to make it count. A brand name (a.k.a. trade name) can do that for you in a way your surname may not be able to.
Your firm’s name is the first thing people learn about it. Why not lead with strength? You can use your firm’s name to subtly convey excellence, success, or values: think “Pinnacle,” “Champion,” or “Justice.” Choosing a brand name with a visual can also make it easier to create a logo.
Similarly, your firm name can tell people at a glance where you practice, what you do, or both. If you were looking for a divorce attorney in your area, “Lansing Family Law” tells you a lot more than, say, “Cregg & Ziegler.” Especially if you have a niche practice area, including your type of practice in your firm name lets prospective clients know you offer a service they need. That said, there’s always a chance you might change or expand your practice areas. In that case, building your brand around a single area of practice could be risky.
It may be unfair, but some clients have the perception that a bigger law firm is a better law firm. While you obviously wouldn’t want to deliberately convey that your law firm employed more people than it does, a brand name can create the impression of a more established practice.
Sure, it’s just you right now, or you and a partner. But you’re looking to grow. What happens if you add another partner, and then another? You see where we’re going with this. “Seaborn & Lyman” sounds fine. But “Seaborn, Lyman, Ziegler, Cregg, Young, McGarry & Moss” is...a lot. With a brand name, no matter how many partners the firm has, the name won’t get unwieldy. And you won’t end up lining your birdcage with expensive, obsolete letterhead.
By the same token, if Lyman & Moss run off and start their own firm, it will have less of an effect on your firm’s identity if the firm has a brand name than if the departing attorneys had been named partners in your firm.
Brand stability isn’t just for larger firms where partners may come and go. Eventually, as a solo, you may want to sell your law firm when you retire. That might be a lot easier to do if the firm’s brand isn’t intertwined with one person’s identity (yours). If the firm’s value is based primarily on you running it, that could mean the firm becomes harder to sell and isn’t worth as much when you sell it. When your firm has a brand name, a purchaser may be able to more easily step into your shoes and continue the practice without disruption to the firm’s name, reputation, or identity.
That said, attorney coach/consultant Roy S. Ginsburg cautions against basing a firm’s name primarily on how the name might impact a potential sale in the distant future. According to Ginsburg, “The driving factor (in naming a firm) should be what makes sense now and in the next three to five years.”
Law firm clients tend to see a firm’s partners as the most experienced and most desirable to work with. That might be true, but often an associate has just the right background or skill set to help a particular client, or they can perform a certain task as well as the partner, but more cost-effectively.
That said, there is one good reason to emphasize who is a partner and who is an associate: when you’re billing significantly more for the former than the latter and want to make clear why paying a premium is worth it. Even then, it’s not necessary to name the firm after the partners to make that distinction.
If what you do and where you do it is right in your firm’s name, it makes it just a little easier for your firm’s name to come up in a Google search. If someone is searching for “Dayton DUI Defense” and your firm is named the “Dayton DUI Defense Group,” your law firm website might rank higher in a search than if your firm were named “McGarry & Mendoza.” An important step in choosing a brand name is to make sure it, or a close variation, is available to purchase as a domain (.com) name.
You might be proud of your surname, but you don’t have a lot of control over it. It might be difficult to spell or pronounce. It might be so common as to be forgettable, or easily confused with someone else. It might also be harder to trademark. If you use a brand name for your law firm, you can choose something as clever, simple, or memorable as you want.
That said, brand names are only effective if they are used consistently. So if you want your brand name to stick in people’s minds, you need to lead the charge.
At least a third of attorneys in the U.S. are women. Not all women change their surname when they marry or divorce, but many do. If it’s even remotely possible that you might change your surname, you might not want to tether your law firm’s identity to that name.
We understand this one from personal experience. The Modern Firm started out in life as “Chard.net,” after our founder, Brendan Chard. As the company grew, people who contacted us kept looking for Brendan, even if he wasn’t the best person to deal with their particular need. Once the company was renamed The Modern Firm, clients became much less attached to the idea that they needed to speak only to Brendan—which let them talk to the person who could best help them, and also freed Brendan up to do the work he does best.
In the end, it all comes back to the image you want to convey. Naming a law firm after the owner or partners is “the way it’s always been done.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, or with wanting to appear traditional. But if you want to seem a bit more modern or progressive, using a brand name for your firm could be a subtle way to convey that you are open to new ideas and approaches.
Do we have you convinced that a brand name is the only way to go? That’s great...unless your jurisdiction’s ethics rules regarding advertising don’t permit the use of brand names for law firms. In light of all the advantages of brand names, that might seem outrageous. The bottom line is the intent to protect consumers of legal services.
Some jurisdictions won’t allow law firms to use brand names in order to avoid misleading or confusing consumers. You can judge for yourself whether a law firm calling itself “Superior Legal Services” is really tricking consumers into believing it’s the best law firm in the whole state with that name.
Regardless of how fair these rules are, you are stuck with the rule for your jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions allow brand names for law firms without restriction, and others bar them completely. Still others allow a brand name as long as an attorney’s name is included. And some jurisdictions don’t permit the firm itself to have a brand name, but there’s more flexibility with the law firm website domain name.
So, the first order of business is to find out what your jurisdiction allows. Then you can come up with a name that suits your sensibilities and your needs both now and down the road. If you identify a brand name that you like, you’ll need to make sure no one else has trademarked it (if they haven’t, consider promptly doing so yourself).
The name of your law firm is the first things prospective clients learn about you. Pick a name that will really work for you—now, and hopefully for many years to come.