“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 It was the fact that it was “based on outdated professionalism standards” that drew LawHQ’s challenge, on the grounds that the rule violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.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.”
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