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LEGAL CENTS: Playing the name game

Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and Wisconsin Law Journal’s editor-at-large. She can be reached at jpribek@bellsouth.net.

To answer your question, Mr. Shakespeare, there’s a lot in a name, especially when it’s associated with a law firm changing its name, even slightly.

In the early 2000s, Murphy Desmond in Madison dropped the ampersand between those two partners’ names on the urging of an advertising agency that suggested it’s more “hip,” explained Amy Gores, the firm’s marketing director.

I applaud that trend.

Even before becoming a journalist and learning that ampersands are verboten from a style perspective, as an English major I always have loathed them as a sign of laziness. I still refuse to use them even when texting.

Murphy Desmond dropped the laundry list of partners in the 1980s, Gores said, making them years ahead of other firms shortening their names — another trend.

Some firms are going to just one name. Consider Stellpflug, Janssen, Hammer, Kirschling & Bartels becoming simply “Stellpflug Law” a few years ago.

They likely went with “Stellpflug” because it’s the first name. But of that list, there are others that are easier to pronounce and spell. Some firms are getting away from surnames that easily can be botched. Then again, in Wisconsin, we love our varied ethnicities, as evidenced by the fests on Milwaukee’s lakefront almost every summer weekend. So if a firm doesn’t have a national practice, keeping that Czech or Polish name is just fine (especially for this proud Bohemian).

A firm’s age plays a role in renaming it. It probably was a huge decision for Stellpflug to change its name, since it’s been around for more than 80 years.

Along these lines, Foley & Lardner, at approximately 170 years old, unlikely will change its name anytime soon, although they do have offices in some of the same locales as Foley & Mansfield and Foley Hoag, which probably creates confusion.

Also, let’s face it, the “Lardner” part connotes pig fat — not an attractive association. But it’s probably too late now for them to go by anything else. I did notice the firm calls itself just “Foley” often on its website.

For that matter, the nickname is another trend.

Gores said she’s sprinkled “Murphy Desmond Lawyers” in the website, even though it’s not the firm’s legal name, so it’s clear they’re not an accounting firm or anything else. And often, internally, they call themselves M.D.

I’ve also noticed some firms starting to lower-case their form of business entity, such as Davis & Kuelthau s.c.

That’s very likely part of the push law firms are making to be perceived as fresh and modern, Gores said. While she likes the lowercase S.C., Gores met some resistance at her firm when she suggested it.

“As a marketing person, I always want to push the envelope a little, so we don’t look like everyone else. But I think when you’re dealing with attorneys, they’re really by the book,” she said.

“You always want to look fresh and follow some trends, but not the trends that are too trendy.”

That might include the funkier connectors that are taking hold elsewhere. Some firms, headquartered outside of Wisconsin, have pushed for an even more contemporary feel. Consider Farella Braun + Martel or Larson ∙ King. If your firm’s considering adopting any of these, be prepared to teach some keyboard shortcuts.

In sum, it appears changing a firm’s name, even slightly, is a big deal, not just because most lawyers are traditional by nature and often hard-core grammarians. Also, Gores reminds that from the business perspective, once your firm is branded, changing it is a huge expense, with new signage, stationery, banners, etc.

So whenever you’re re-naming your firm, go for something that’s somewhat timeless.


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