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Names, names and names

16 July 2013

Imagination is not something traditionally associated with the naming of a law firm. A string of names has usually been sufficient – and sometimes they can even be the same (see the North Carolina firm of Eggers, Eggers, Eggers & Eggers, www.eggers-law.com).

History is, of course, a key driver of the names of our law firms. Lawyers and other professionals practised in partnership and partnerships carried the names of the partners. Perhaps because lawyers were involved, it has been long settled in law that as long as there is an express assignment of the rights to use a retiring partner’s name, that name can continue to be used. Jackson Russell, Duncan Cotterill and Pitt & Moore have all commemorated founding partners for at least 134 years.

The Rules of Professional Conduct for Barristers and Solicitors, in force from 1989 until 2008, required a firm name not to be misleading, to bring the profession into disrepute, or to be unfair to other practitioners or the public. The commentary sternly warned that a name should not give an impression to the public “that the firm is multi-partners and broadly based when in fact it might be a very small firm”.

One change has been brought about by the new legislation regulating lawyers. At 1 March 2013 New Zealand had 198 law firms with “Limited” in their name – 10.8% of all law firms – up from zero before 2008.

While law firms which incorporate must advise the Law Society of their name and any change to it, the only specific requirement now for any law firm name comes in Rule 11.1 of the Lawyers Conduct and Client Care Rules: “A lawyer must not engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or likely to mislead or deceive anyone on any aspect of the lawyer’s practice.” The wording used is identical to the Fair Trading Act 1986 and there is a now a good body of case law on business names in general. More specifically, the Court of Appeal considered issues such as deceptive and misleading conduct in adoption of trading names when it upheld the granting of an injunction against the proposed use of a law firm name in Neumegen v Neumegen & Co [1998] 3 NZLR 310.

If there have been any trends in law firm naming in New Zealand over the past few decades, they appear to have been to streamline names, add defining words such as “Law”, “Lawyers” or “Law Office”, and since the late 1990s, a move to adoption of more descriptive or functional nomenclature.

There is definitely a trend towards shorter, more focused names. During the 1990s firms started shortening their names. Simpson Grierson Butler White, Barristers and Solicitors, was one of the early movers, becoming Simpson Grierson Law in the early 1990s. Many other firms have shortened their original names. Bell Gully Buddle Weir became Bell Gully in 2000, the same year that Russell McVeagh McKenzie Bartleet & Co became Russell McVeagh.

A good example of the evolution of law firm names comes in the rise of a leading Queenstown firm. Started by Alan Macalister as a branch of Southland firm Macalister Bros in 1975, it became Macalister Todd in 1983 when he was joined in partnership by Graeme Todd, and then Macalister Todd Phillips in 1985 when Kevin Phillips joined the practice. More partners joined in subsequent years and the firm now practises under the shorter title of MACTODD.

University of Otago senior lecturer in marketing Tony Garry says greater competition and the “commodification” of legal advice have pushed many law firms into a much greater focus on marketing.

Dr Garry, who spent much time researching legal marketing in the United Kingdom, says he watched many English firms re-positioning themselves by re-branding. This was aimed at making them more accessible to potential clients and moving away from the old fashioned and staid image traditionally associated with law firms.

“For many firms, part of this is to change the name of the firm,” he says. “However, the mistake many firms make is to adopt marketing practices that are applicable to different market contexts, such as retail products in supermarkets rather than professional services.

“So, while a short snappy brand name and advert with an accompanying jingle may be good for a soap powder and may raise your awareness and help you remember the product exists in a supermarket, is it always appropriate for law firms? There is no firm evidence either way yet to my knowledge, but all indications suggest probably not.”

To put it into context, most New Zealand law firms are still very much named after their founders or current operators. Just over one in eight – 12.6% – have a name which does not include an identifiable last name in it.

Focusing on the “unconventional” one-eighth, names can be totally driven by the firm’s line of work: Drink Drive Law Ltd (Auckland), Family Law Specialists Ltd (Porirua) and Property Law Service Ltd (Masterton) leave no doubt about the type of specialist advice and service they will provide.

Location is also another useful choice, ranging from the very specific (Cathedral Lane Law in Napier) to the suburban (Khandallah Law in Wellington) to the regional (Canterbury Legal Services Ltd). Some firms combine speciality and location as with Kilbirnie Family Law and Auckland Property Law Services.

An appropriate first or last name can be useful. Peter Small set up The Small Law Firm Limited in Mt Albert, Auckland in 1995. His well-designed website advises that “The Small Law Firm Ltd is big on service and low overheads means better value”. Using his last name as both an identifier and an attribute appears to work well. “I do think it helps people remember my name; it certainly raises a few chuckles,” says Mr Small.

In Wellington Tim Power delivers specialist public law and regulatory advice from Power Law.

Alice Lawyers provides property law services from its offices in Mt Albert, Auckland. In a friendly touch, the firm avoids a surname and uses a first name – probably the only instance in the country.

“My Chinese name is a bit hard for English speakers to pronounce,” says the owner of the firm. “Alice is my English name. I like it, as I used to like the kids’ story Alice in Wonderland. New Zealand is a ‘wonderland’ for me to some extent. Also, a lot of clients know me as Alice: it is user-friendly and easy to remember.”

Moving from factors delivered by nature (as in location) or birth and inheritance (names), law firms which have opted to create their own name tend to retain a strong connection with the delivery of legal services and to focus on life from a client’s viewpoint.

Rotorua lawyer Paula Lines bought Rotorua Law Shop Limited, including the original name, in 2008.

“I kept the name because it is well known in Rotorua, but also because it’s simple and tells people what we are,” she says. “When someone is looking for a lawyer, I want them to know immediately that that is what we are. You can’t necessarily tell that from some firms.”

Ms Lines says there are a few downsides to the name:

“We get confused with the Community Law Centre, some people think we sell legal textbooks, etc, and some people think we only have information which will then direct them to lawyers.”

Karen Venables says when she was setting up her New Plymouth law firm Legalsolutions she researched trends in England and America in relation to law firms.

“I noticed that a lot of the newer firms were changing from traditional ‘Names’ to non names. I also noticed that firms were changing from Smith, Smith and Jones to SSJ to try and give the firm a more modern feel.”

Ms Venables focused on thinking of a name which said her firm was modern and approachable, but still professional.

“I had initially looked at clever Latin names – like some of the firms in England and America – but then decided against it, as if I had to explain it to my clients, it defeated the purpose. I am hoping to achieve a culture of proactive legal advice – putting things in place before they become a problem, and that is where the ‘Solutions’ in the name comes from.”

She says clients still feel intimidated when approaching a law firm, especially if it’s the first time.

“I think the name has helped us gain new-to-law clients. I also think my existing clients like that we have a modern brand. I haven’t heard anything negative but that may just not have filtered through to me.”

“And it is much easier for the receptionist!” says Ms Venables, touching on one of the motivations behind development of another innovative law firm name, The Law Lounge.

Located in Takapuna, this new firm features lounge furniture in its offices. Founder Greg Webster says he engaged brand specialist Al Best to help with ideas which expressed the philosophy behind his firm. “The Law Lounge” was one of a number of names which emerged.

“It was a bit risky, a bit out there, but the name kept coming back,” Mr Webster says.

One benefit he sees is that the brand is not just focused around himself: “It’s anyone who works for the Law Lounge.”

The name links with the real estate and property law services the firm provides, as everyone has a lounge in their home. It also promotes a feeling of easy access and a relaxed environment.

“It is supposed to give the idea that we are approachable and that we are a little bit more modern, Mr Webster says. “Younger clients love the name and we get more positive than negative feedback from our client base. It’s been quite fun having a name that’s different.”

Greg Webster also feels the name of his firm is more friendly to a growing e-generation which hunts for services through Google. That mobile, always connected and always accessible feeling is captured by Virtual Law Ltd which promotes itself as an innovative boutique law firm which provides legal advice to clients “in their own homes or wherever it is more convenient”.

Principal Miriam Hollins says when she first adopted the name she received some inquiries from clients as to what a virtual law firm is.

“However, since then the word ‘virtual’ has become more commonplace with banking, etc, and clients have a clearer idea of what a virtual firm is. I don’t think the name itself has helped attract new clients but rather our offering of our mobile service which we advertise in our logo: Virtual Law – Law to your door.”

Developments in law firm names will be interesting to watch. However, like any business venture, the key to success or realisation of business objectives lies with meeting the needs of customers.

“When talking to lawyers I always remind them of the adage ‘you can’t change the plumbing by painting the toilet’,” says Tony Garry of Otago University.

“At the end of the day, legal advice is people-based, not product-based, and as a result it is usually about developing and maintaining long term relationships between individuals. As a result, customer care and quality of service result in word-of-mouth recommendations – usually the best form of marketing.”

Last updated on the 17th March 2016