What’s in a name? The question, immortalized by Shakespeare’s Juliet has myriad answers, especially when it comes to naming your law firm. As more attorneys have begun pursuing specialized practice niches, the traditional approach of stringing together the partners’ surnames has sometimes been sidestepped in favor of names that are inherently more evocative of the markets they wish to serve.
Devon Thomas Treadwell, a principal at Pollywog, Inc. a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based naming and branding firm, stresses that a firm’s name is one of the key assets of its marketing plan and follows closely upon how it differentiates its practice in the market. Once you can speak to what your specialty is, the question becomes how to package your firm in a cohesive and comprehensive identity.
“Once you've focused your offerings and the idea of how you want people to think of you as a law firm then you can start looking at what kind of name would deliver on that idea,” says Treadwell. “It comes down to how people process information,” explained Treadwell. “We have enough science around the brain and how the brain works to know what people notice and what people remember.” Topping the list of memorable qualities is the notion of novelty. “This is a problem with law firms,” he continued. “If you take a founder name it's very likely that it's not gonna be a name that jumps out because it's just someone's name.”
Likewise, names that suggest emotion are also characteristically more memorable. However, as with the novelty issue, it’s unlikely that a firm whose name reads like your Outlook contacts list is going to evoke any sentiment beyond a yawn. That’s when it’s time to get creative. Of the two firms Pollywog, Inc. has named, both boast names that will leap off the screen when potential clients see them. Consider Beanstalk. “Their promise was all about helping creative people, inventors and entrepreneurs realize their dreams through the practice of law,” says Treadwell. Indeed, Beanstalk brings a whimsical dimension to the otherwise staid world of trademarks, patents and copyright. Moreover, it serves to attract an artistically-minded client who might otherwise have misgivings or be intimidated by a more traditional- sounding firm.
“‘Beanstalk’ spoke to those aspirational qualities and it was a name that certainly set them apart from other law firms,” says Treadwell, who quickly adds with a laugh, “It’s not a name for a corporate attorney. If you’re a completely risk averse gigantic corporation you may not want to work with a scrappy little law firm like that, but then you’re also not their target client anyway.”
As can be expected, there are pitfalls to bestowing a non-traditional name on one’s firm. Not least of which are issues of legality when it comes to using a “trade name” in the state in which you practice. “The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct are fairly broad and permit the use of a trade name as long as it does not imply a connection with a government agency or with a public or charitable legal services organization and is not otherwise false or misleading,” says attorney Meaghan Tuohey-Kay, who practices bankruptcy law and immigration law in New Jersey. Other states have adopted more restrictive ethics rules for firm names, Tuohey-Kay points out. In her own state, there is the New Jersey Rule of Professional Conduct 7.5(a), which requires a law firm name to “include the full or last names of one or more of the lawyers in the firm or office or the names of a person or persons who have ceased to be associated with the firm through death or retirement.” To wit, more creative names are prohibited.
“The tight restrictions protect the public from misleading or confusing names and work in conjunction with other ethics rules that prohibit lawyers from designating themselves as ‘specialists’ or ‘experts,’” explains Touhey-Kay. Another consideration is whether or not your chosen name is also available as a domain name. Most top-level domain names in English were inhaled during the first wave of the dot-com boom. Even the naming experts Pollywog, Inc. uses pollywoginc.com rather than the shorter pollywog.com, which, rather inexplicably, is the underdeveloped site of a technical writer. Chatter on the Internet suggests that a dot-law domain suffix might become available in the coming year or so, which opens a whole new realm of possibilities for nascent firms in search of a name. In the meantime, it’s recommended that firms avoid trying to gin up web traffic by packing their names full of popular keywords. Not only can it lead to a garish strings of words it can also lead to penalties on the part of popular search engines.
“Using keywords to name a law firm might have seemed like a good idea a year ago for purpose of SEO, but I still chuckled when I saw it,” observes personal injury and DUI attorney George Creal, who practices out of Atlanta, Georgia. With the advent of Google’s so- called Panda and Penguin updates to its search algorithm, keyword stuffing – even in one’s name – can adversely affect your search engine optimization. Creal himself subscribes to the “be the brand” school of law firm naming and his eponymously-named site proves it.
“It still makes more sense to work on branding a lawyer individually like ‘George Creal’ or a firm name like ‘King & Spalding’ rather than ‘Atlanta Personal Injury Lawyers Group,’” says Creal who warns against generic-sounding keyword-based names. “If you win a big trial, then the headline reads ‘Atlanta Personal Injury Lawyers Group wins million dollar verdict.’”
Among the first points a law firm should take into account when naming itself isn’t which animal algorithm from Google’s growing zoo to avoid offending. According to Treadwell, it should be who to trust with this extremely important task. Just as you wouldn’t recommend your clients enact their own legal strategies without your consultation, Treadwell similarly suggests seeking professional help when crafting your firm’s name.
“Clients often fall in love with names that just aren't good so having that experienced, objective eye is going to be really helpful,” she says.