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Published on Law.com’s The Mid-Market Report
by Justin Henry
“A string of partner names to the public is really pretty meaningless—it’s not what’s important,” said Jennifer Cona, managing partner of Long Island, New York-based Cona Elder Law.
With the vast majority of U.S. states now permitting law firms to use trade names as their official moniker, leaders at younger and midsize boutique firms say a more aerodynamic firm letterhead—instead of a list of each equity partner’s last name—helps to distinguish firms in a crowded practice area while promoting a more egalitarian work culture.
“My practice area in elder law is becoming a much more crowded field,” said Jennifer Cona, managing partner of Long Island, New York-based Cona Elder Law, which was renamed from Genser Dubow Genser & Cona in January.
The trade name, Cona said, “cuts through a lot of noise for community members to just hone in and know right off the bat that this is what we do, here’s what we concentrate in.”
Renaming Cona Elder Law was possible in New York after Midwest-based “lawtech” firm LawHQ filed suits against state bar associations that didn’t allow law firms to adopt trade names. That prompted revisions to professional conduct rules to allow firms to adopt trade names in New York, Texas and New Jersey.
Today, only one state, Rhode Island, has yet to modify its rule to allow for law firm trade names, although a U.S. district judge in January ruled that LawHQ’s challenge to the state’s bar professional conduct rules can move forward.
The original intent of the controversial rule 7.5 was to prevent firms from “misleading the public about the identity, responsibility and status of those who use the name,” according to a June 18 memo from the New York State Unified Court System. It was the fact that it was “based on outdated professionalism standards” that drew LawHQ’s challenge, on the grounds that the rule violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“A string of partner names to the public is really pretty meaningless—it’s not what’s important,” Cona said, adding the convention of naming a legal practice after its equity partners an “ego-feeding machine.”
Until June, the firm used Genser Cona Elder Law as its web domain name and later in advertising, while maintaining its official legal name on the firm’s letterhead and on the back of business cards, Cona said. The firm had a separate brand name and legal name, making it challenging to maintain a consistent brand image in the community.
Cona said the process was tedious. The firm had to request clients restate retainer agreements and refile court documents in ongoing litigation—ultimately thousands of documents that had to be revised.
The name change coincided with the departure of name partners for retirement and for other litigation practices—allowing the firm to shrink its name, Cona said. When Cona promoted longtime firm lawyers Ken Kern and Melissa Negrin-Wiener in January to equity partner, Cona said they declined to have their names listed.
“We did discuss at length with them, did we want to include their names in the firm?” she said. “They said ‘no,’ because the question is how important is it to them to have their names there versus letting the public know what we do?”
Cona said the rebranding is best suited for small and midsize boutiques with a key practice area anchoring the firm, since many larger firms have several areas of concentration. The trend is likely to become more popular, especially at consumer-facing firms, according to leaders with the firm.
Shortening a firm’s name is a natural evolution for the legal industry, mirroring a marketing strategy that’s observable in other businesses, said Danielle Holland, executive director of the Legal Marketing Association. Incorporating a specific legal service offering into a firm name will communicate its message—and, in some respects, the value proposition—that firm executives want to put into the marketplace.
“However, you need to choose carefully to ensure that your message and services are crystal clear,” Holland said in an email statement. “At the end of the day, clients still largely purchase their legal services based on personal relationships so shortening the name is part of a broader strategy, not a solution to a problem.”
Another firm that established itself with a trade name last year once its jurisdiction revised its professional conduct rules for law firms is New Jersey-based Lex Nova Law, which formed at the beginning of 2020 from six Flaster Greenberg partners.
Peter Spirgel, a principal of Lex Nova Law who served as managing shareholder at Flaster Greenberg for more than 30 years, said the moniker draws on law’s Latin roots, translating to “new law,” and conveys the firm’s innovative use of technology that’s available when starting from scratch.
Many prestige law firms have a significant amount of expenses that can be hard to cut down on and find innovative alternatives for, Spirgel said. Libraries and conference rooms—prestige assets that some law firms are unwilling to jettison—can all be replaced by low-cost digital and virtual solutions at a firm starting from scratch.
“We envisioned our firm as being set up from start to take advantage of new technologies,” Spirgel said. “We weren’t encumbered by any legacy systems or methods. We felt we could deliver legal services more efficiently than we were used to, because we were starting new and we were 100% cloud-based and as paperless as you could be.”
Spirgel said he and fellow founding attorneys opted not to name the firm after themselves—that way they could avoid uncomfortable hierarchies when onboarding any new equity-level principals.
For Los Angeles-based trial and appeals firm Waymaker, which changed from Baker Marquart in Ryan Baker, a co-founding partner of Waymaker. The name change reflects the firm’s ethos of “making novel arguments” and “representing cutting-edge clients,” said partner Ryan Baker, who co-founded the firm in 2006 with partner Jamie Marquart.
Aside from having a diverse slate of practice areas, long-standing legacy firms have names that have taken on their own recognition, Baker said, despite the fact that many of the name partners are deceased. Younger, upstarting firms don’t have the same level of brand equity, especially if they share a name in common with a Big Law firm players like Baker Botts, Baker McKenzie or BakerHostetler.
Some things stayed the same, Baker said: Firm leaders said they made a point of reassuring clients that the name change would have no effect on their client relationships.
But the change also has the intended effect of fostering an egalitarian firm culture, Baker said. The 16-lawyer firm, for example, has paid closer attention to diversity and equity, promoting two female attorneys to partnership, hiring a female attorney and an attorney of color in 2020.
“Jamie and I are both white males, and the vast majority of law firms are named after white males, and it’s something that we wanted to move beyond,” Baker said.
Cona Elder Law is a full service law firm based in Melville, LI. Our firm concentrates in the areas of elder law, estate planning, estate administration and litigation, special needs planning and health care facility representation. We are proud to have been recognized for our innovative strategies, creative techniques and unparalleled negotiating skills unendingly driven toward our paramount objective - satisfying the needs of our clients.
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