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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: Make yourself a household name

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com. Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at www.LawBizForum.com.

Remember how much time you and your spouse spent picking a name for your child(ren)? Remember how important it seemed to choose a name that would identify that child for the rest of his/her life? Well, no less time should be spent considering the name of your law firm.

Taking your own name in vain: a good marketing tactic

Traditionally, when lawyers open a firm, they take their own names. One reason is ego, of course. A related reason for using your name is that your name, to some degree, becomes your brand. When you want people to come to you, how are they going to find you in the phone book or through an Internet search engine? If clients want to refer friends or associates to you, how are they going to describe you?

As you grow and more partners are added to the firm, more names are often added to the firm name. When you see five or six or seven names in a letterhead of a smaller firm, it is inevitably because the other partners believe they need it for their own personal marketing purposes.

Inevitably, over time, the first couple of names for a firm are the ones that clients and prospects associate with it. Thus, it is common to shorten the firm name to match common usage. (Does anybody really refer to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as anything other than “Skadden”?) To go contrary to that “share of mind” is at odds with your marketing purpose.

Taking on a new name, new persona

It is a growing trend for firms to develop an entirely new name based on the type of law that the firm practices. The advantage of calling yourself the “Business Connection” or “Family Law Center” is the appeal to that segment of the marketplace that generates the bulk of your business.

It’s a way of specializing without going through the specialization process that some state bar associations require for focusing on a practice area. This is purely a marketing consideration, to be made only if you’ve decided in advance that you want to serve only one practice area. If you expect to expand into other practice areas, it is not applicable.

Taking someone else’s name: ethical considerations

Marketing regulations adopted several years ago by the New York State Bar assert that “a lawyer in private practice shall not practice under a trade name.” This would seem to require that if a firm is sold, the selling lawyer must retire, and the purchasing lawyer must delete the seller’s name from the firm because the seller’s name often acts as a “trade name.”

However, it is often the trade name — or selling lawyer’s name — that is an important part of the purchase price. Changing the firm name might diminish the intangible goodwill value of the firm name. Consider carefully your state bar’s regulations to find ways to keep the seller’s name intact while adding your own brand to the letterhead. Of course, firms with bad publicity and malpractice and disciplinary matters hanging over them have little goodwill, no matter what the firm is called.

Choosing a generic name

A generic law firm name symbolizes that clients belong to the firm and not to the lawyer, and that is in the best interests of firm, lawyer, and client alike.

There are very few lawyers who have successfully branded themselves as personalities, like Melvin Belli or Johnnie Cochran. Most clients presume that each lawyer is as competent as the next. Institutionalizing the work done for a given client can involve several firm lawyers in the delivery of legal services, even if one lawyer remains the client’s primary contact.

If clients place primary reliance on the firm as an institution instead of on an individual lawyer, every lawyer benefits as the firm itself maintains relationships and generates new ones.

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