Big Six law firms in France square up for names battle

Law firms in France with links to the Big Six accountancy firms may seek compensation from the French government if they are forced to change their names, according to one lawyer embroiled in the debate.

The battle centres around the conflicting provisions of a law passed in 1992, which has only just come into force.

Although primarily aimed at the merger of barristers and solicitors, the law – Le Portant Reforme de Certaine Professions Judiciaires et Juridiques – also includes new rules on the structure and naming of law firms.

The controversy surrounds a provision which states that firms which are members of international networks not exclusively legal in nature are not allowed to refer to that membership in their names.

It has prompted Le Conseil de Barreaux (CNB), which governs all France's 160-180 regional law associations, to declare that law firms associated with accountancy firms and with names connected to those firms – such as Paris-based Price Waterhouse Juridique et Fiscal and HSD Ernst & Young (Societe d'Avocats) – must change their names.

So far Price Waterhouse Juridique et Fiscal has stood firm. However, from 1 January this year, the law firm dropped its logo, which had been the same as that of the Price Waterhouse international network.

Managing partner Jean Gaignon said: “We decided that a very strict reading of the law allows us to retain our company name. It is clear that the business community will make the link, but we do not explicitly refer to it.”

But he said the CNB now appeared to be on a “mission” to force Big Six law firms to change their names and said they would seek compensation if they were forced to act.

“In my view, and in the view of lots of lawyers in France, the CNB has no regulatory power overriding the regulatory power of the law societies – except in training matters,” said Gaignon.

“Only a law can force a company to change its name and it cannot do that without taking measures to pay an indemnity. A name is an asset – you cannot force a company to change its name without compensation.”

Gaignon said the issue would probably take years to resolve and would certainly not be addressed until well after the General Election in April 1998.