New Zealand Law Society - Legal nomenclature — from prolix to trendy

Legal nomenclature — from prolix to trendy

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The lawyers of the time when I started in the law would have been rather disconcerted by current trends in the nomenclature of legal firms today. Not as much as they would have been by the insistence of marketing, PR and other consultants in referring to lawyers as “the legal industry”. I hope that I am not in a minority in thinking that, despite the accoutrements and different practice styles of the 21st century, lawyers still proudly belong to a profession – not an industry.

In the 1950s and 60s, it seemed to be important that one’s name should appear as or as part of the firm name – particularly when commencing practice. After all, avenues for advertising were then extremely circumscribed by the Law Society. Failing that, the names of the founding fathers of the firm might be immortalised in the firm name – particularly if they had been prominent leaders of the profession or even prominent politicians. Hence such polysyllabics as Brookfield, Prendergast, Schnauer & Smytheman; or Billing, Little, Fookes & Strombom; or Earl, Kent, Massey, Palmer and Hamer; or Baxter, Shrewsbury, Milliken & Murdoch – to mention a few firm names which paid obeisance to the past whilst naming the then current senior partners.

If you were a sole practitioner, you practised under your own name, although adding an “& Co” was permissible even if there was no “Co”. Sometimes the “& Co” was a rather more junior person and since public manifestation of the junior’s name might diminish the impact of the more important personage on the clientele, the name of the junior person did not feature in the firm name. Another indication of one-upmanship was putting your first name into the firm name – even although the firm name included two or more surnames.

The only firm name I can recall – other than those of the few women sole practitioners in those days – which paid any regard to women lawyers was Alexander, J.H. & Julia Dunn, Wellington – a firm which specialised in defamation law and which had New Zealand Truth as a client.

Retaining names

If you were acquiring a sole practice from a retiring solicitor or from a deceased estate, it was not uncommon to retain the name of the former practitioner and add your own name to theirs in the hope that the clients of the retired or deceased lawyer may still patronise what appeared to be a “firm”. Sometimes, firm names on this model had three names – reflecting more than one change of ownership.

A proclamation from the Law Society of the day forbade a firm name which included that of a person, no longer a member of the firm, who had gone to the bar (very few did) or who had been appointed to the bench. Thus, Buddle Richmond & Co became Buddle Weir & Co when Kip Richmond was appointed a judge in 1960 and Leary, Giesen & Hillyer lost two of its names at different times when Leonard Leary and Peter Hillyer went to the bar. That particular convention seems to have been forgotten today.

Some of the bigger and/or old-established firms decided, early on, to stick with the names by which they had been known for a while and which had been associated with a good reputation. For example, Bell Gully, Chapman Tripp – although at some stages of their journey, such firms might have enjoyed a longer formal name.

Firms that were growing their practices often changed names when a new partner came along or an older partner died or retired. When I first met my good friend, the late Sir Bruce Slane (as he then wasn’t), the firm’s name was Dufaur, Fawcett, Cairns & Slane. Bruce had just become a partner at a young age, as one did in the late 1950s, and went on to become New Zealand Law Society President and to demystify the profession with his many excellent PR initiatives. Not too long afterwards, the name became Dufaur, Cairns, Slane & Fitzgerald when my boarding school friend, John Fitzgerald, joined the practice – then a little later, Cairns, Slane Fitzgerald & Phillips when John Phillips came along. I hope I have got the various permutations right! The firm’s successors today are called now, simply, Cairns Slane. Country practitioners were more prone to this form of firm name change than their city counterparts, presumably because country lawyers, then as now, tend to be well-known in their communities.


Mergers often begat long names since neither party to the merger wanted to be forgotten. Thus, when Russell McVeagh & Co (which before the elevation of Barrowclough CJ had been Russell, McVeagh, Macky & Barrowclough) merged with McKenzie & Bartleet, the name of the new firm became Russell, McVeagh, McKenzie, Bartleet & Co. The merged firm was still referred to by most of the profession as Russell McVeagh – as the firm is now called.

Add-ons such as “& Co “or “& Partners” or “& Son(s)” tended to fall out of favour slowly over the years. Perhaps the marketers thought them too old-fashioned?

Mergers – particularly mergers of more than two firms – often saw the demise of firm names which had been a presence in a town for many years. For example, I was once a partner in a well-regarded middle-sized firm in Auckland called Morpeth Gould & Co. It had been founded by Hector Morpeth in 1910. In the latter years of the last century, a flurry of mergers of similarly-sized firms in both Auckland and Wellington saw the creation of a new firm with offices in both cities under a title which included only two names, chosen from quite a large pool provided by the names of the contributing firms. While acknowledging that the choice of a two-name firm brand was always going to be difficult and would necessarily wipe away many symbols of legal history, I was, however, mildly disappointed that the Morpeth name did not feature in the name of the new entity.

The new Act governing the legal profession, which came into force in 2008, created a brave new world for the profession with things like engagement letters and information on what to do if you became unhappy with your lawyer.

The new Act saw greater use of the generic descriptive term “lawyers”, instead of the traditional description of “barristers and solicitors”. Fifty years ago when there were few barristers sole, every lawyer – even those in small towns who had hardly ever darkened the door of a Supreme Courthouse since the day when they were admitted – proclaimed themselves as members of both branches of the profession.

Nowadays, the generic term prevails. The thinking might be that clients want “a lawyer” and prefer this Americanisation.


One effect of the 2006 legislation which affected nomenclature was that members of the legal profession were entitled to practise as incorporated companies. This meant, inter alia, that the firm name had “Limited” tacked on the end and partners became directors who could take the tax advantages of incorporation. I must confess a sense of regret that, before the new Act was passed, a limited liability statutory creature called a “professional corporation” or words to that effect was not enabled.

Many overseas jurisdictions (including small ones) have succeeded in creating such a statutory vehicle – for example, the Cook Island lawyers thus put P.C. after the firm name. Most of the big UK firms are the same. Their letterheads often explain that they are “limited liability partnerships” and that principals in the firm are still called “partners”. Such legislation usually extends to other professions as well.

I have the old-fashioned feeling that the word “company” does not sit well with a firm consisting of those who are members of a profession. Perhaps the insidious term “legal industry” is a rogue manifestation of the thinking which permitted incorporation for law firms but under the standard company format. I certainly do not wish to criticise those who have incorporated their practices which seem to operate as ethically and efficiently as firms which have not incorporated, apart from the additional burden of having to comply with the requirements of the Companies Act.

The permitting of incorporation (even in the less-than-optimal company guise) shows some forward-thinking by those responsible for regulating the profession. A good friend of mine – sadly now deceased – tried once to have his medium-sized firm become an unlimited company under the Companies Act 1955. His efforts were not favoured by the Law Society of the day, even although, as an unlimited company, there would be no restriction on any damages payable to a disgruntled client. (As an aside, for reasons that escape me, some useful things like as unlimited companies, common seals and company secretaries were abolished unceremoniously and without credible explanation in the 1993 Act).

Inventive nomenclature

Some former rather precious restrictions on advertising have been relaxed for the profession in more recent times. This has led to some solicitors becoming inventive when naming their practices. Trendy marketers have taken over. While larger and/or more conservative firms stick with the names by which they have been known for years (often founders or legal luminaries of a bygone age in two-name format or just one brand name in the possessive form), newer firms or sole practices have resorted to what is thought to be pithy or trendy. Some refer to location or geographical names; others to an easily-remembered expression of excellence. Others, rather clunkily, use initial letters only (eg, ABCD), taken usually from the initial letters of merging practices. Examples abound of all species and I don’t refer to any New Zealand practice in this or any other category by name, lest I be considered out-of-touch or critical of anybody who wants to be a bit different.

Overseas, one can see several differing examples with large firms. Ampersands and commas are out. Baker & McKenzie has become Baker McKenzie. (Despite the necessary cost in changing stationery, signage, websites etc, they must have thought the demise of the humble ampersand was worth it!) One name with a possessive “s” added (but without an apostrophe) seems common. Dentons and Linklaters come to mind. Mergers usually require some reference to the merging entities. Hence Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Others keep to shortish brand names derived from founding fathers or prominent former partners. Hence, Allen & Overy and Slaughter & May. Yet others go for a set of initials appearing in the firm name – DLA for example.

With all the changes in nomenclature over the years, one hopes that, whatever the name under which today’s lawyers practise, the traditions of service to the community based on professional ethics and personal integrity will still prevail. Nothing that I have seen in the interesting namings makes me fear otherwise.

Sir Ian Barker was admitted as a solicitor in 1957. He has had a long career in the law, as a solicitor, barrister, High Court Judge, law academic, arbitrator and mediator.

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