Who You Gonna Call? Naming Your Law Firm

A journalist recently asked me whether I agreed with the trend to single names for law firms, “given the traditional importance assigned to becoming a named partner.” My reaction was two-fold:

  1. There’s not much point in agreeing or disagreeing with a trend: the question is whether or not you’re going to follow it.
  2. I’ve yet to meet an associate whose ambition was to see his or her name plastered over the reception desk.

I ended up commenting on why I think the trend exists. That set me thinking about names as an aspect of marketing.

Back when Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children was founded, the prevailing ethos of naming entities was to say what they do. As fundraising became more dominant for public hospitals, so marketing principles became more important for their communications. Soon, the ‘street name’ for the hospital began to be used in print and The Hospital for Sick Children morphed into Sick Kids. Today, the hospital goes by SickKids and its internet domain name is

Why? My first guess would be brevity, my second would be familiarity. Both of those attributes are important in marketing. If you want people to donate money, evoking a beloved and familiar name can open wallets.

So how does this apply to law firms? Well, let’s look at the 15 law firms named on the Acritas Canadian Law Firm Brand Index 2014. Ten of them are commonly known by a single name or a set of initials. Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP goes by Blakes, just as Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP goes by Osler. Their full names still exist and are used in legal documents, but for marketing purposes they go by a single name. Similarly, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP goes by the initials BLG. Brand names aren’t just for consumer goods any more.

But wait, aren’t there rules about law firm names? Yes, most law societies have guidelines (the LSUC guidelines, for example, can be found here) but they emphasize what you can’t do, not what makes a good brand name for a law firm. Of the 12 LSUC guidelines, the first ten are “may nots”, the 11th is a “should not” and No. 12 is both a “must” and a “may not”.

Interestingly, none of the 12 LSUC guidelines refers to naming firms after currently practising partners. Many other jurisdictions do have such stipulations, leading to the commonly held belief that the names on the door have to be those of partners currently practising at the firm. In TV shows like The Good Wife and Suits, the highest drama results from the plays to become a ‘named’ partner. However, you won’t find a Blake at Blakes, an Osler at Osler, or a Borden at BLG. Given the mobility of lawyers today, signage would be a growth business if everyone wanted to see their name on the door. Just ask any group of associates if they even plan on being at their firm long enough to make partner, let alone get their names on the wall. Associates today are more likely to want a balanced life in favour of their name in lights. Besides, becoming a named partner happens only in relatively new firms where the named partners still work there. Older firms are much more likely not to have a named partner still living, let alone working at the firm. Take Cassels Brock, for example: I doubt there’s been a Cassels, Brock, or Blackwell at that 120-year-old firm for several generations.

So does your firm need a brand name and if so, what makes a good one? Many larger firms have chosen to use their ‘street name’, for exactly the same reasons as SickKids. These firms are already well known; branding is a way of differentiating themselves from the competition. The important point about these ‘street names’ is that they are usually conferred by clients and referral sources: it’s how they’ve referred to these firms informally among their contacts. It’s ‘word of mouth’ applied to naming conventions, if you will.

And that’s the point, right there: clients and referral sources. What makes your firm’s name come to their minds? It’s all about ‘who you gonna call?’ Not ‘Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP’, but ‘Blakes’.

For newer firms, where the named partners are very much a going concern, the issue is more complicated. A six-partner firm that’s been steadily building a loyal clientele may feel that they have six brands, not one. In fact, they have seven: the six partners and the firm itself. A partnership is an entity that needs marketing: its characteristics should support the individual lawyers and differentiate them from others in the same practice areas.

Some partnerships attempt to answer the brand name question by using their initials. It’s worth testing the concept before investing a lot of money in signage. In doing some market research for a firm of 12 lawyers, I found that while the lawyers referred to the firm by its initials, none of the clients I spoke to recognized the firm by those initials. Even the largest law firm in Canada struggles with this one: when I refer to BLG, more often than not I have to spell out the firm’s full name before recognition dawns.

It might seem simpler for a sole practitioner, but there are still choices to be made. John Smith, LLB? John Smith, Barrister & Solicitor? John Smith, Family Law? Smith Law? Making the decision involves thinking about the type of client you want and what will make that client call your firm. At first, the least limiting options are likely to be the most successful and lasting. Mergers and changes will happen; as part of those changes, the new partners should think first about their clients, existing and prospective, before deciding what to call the new firm. What will make them remember you, find you, call you?

Marketing resources are best spent selling the whole firm, not just individuals. The better a firm’s name is known, the better it is for the individual lawyers who practise at that firm.

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