Name for a laugh
26 October 2010 | Updated: 27 October 2010 11:33 am
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The law is a serious business, so why do so many firms have silly names? Corinne McPartland dons her genealogy shoes
The overwhelming need for lawyers to have their last name on their firm’s letterhead, no matter what the marketing ramifications may be, is tough to understand and can have bizarre consequences. In what other profession could you answer the phone and say, “Hello, Ziffren Brittenham Branca Fischer Gilbert-Lurie Stiffelman Cook Johnson Lande & Wolf, Corinne McPartland speaking - how can I help you?”, without bursting into laughter?
But having a long firm name is just par for the course, says Kenneth Ziffren, founding partner of Ziffren Brittenham Branca, Fischer Gilbert-Lurie Stiffelman Cook Johnson Lande & Wolf. Yes, it really does exist.
“I realise that in one sense it’s seen as humorous, but in another it’s serious,” explains Ziffren. “The people involved merit a mention. We’re a meritocracy as a law firm and when people deserve the recognition of having their name on the masthead, we do it.”
But what if more than 20 partners deserve recognition? Would a plaque not do? Or maybe a team day out? Not according to Ziffren.
“We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” he insists. “Obviously there’s a limit to what you can do, but for the moment it works for us.”
Supersize that for me will ya buddy
Law firm names across the Pond have traditionally been on the eccentric side, with five-name monikers being pretty much the norm. You only have to cast your eye down
the list of the top 50 US law firms and you will spot the likes of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom or Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, for example.
“It’s almost embarrassing to tell people where you work,” explains one newly qualified (NQ) solicitor working at a US firm in London. “I once had to go into the bank to
fill in some forms for a loan I was taking out, and they required me to state the name of my employer. The clerk went away and obviously saw the long name on the form, then came back to the table to ask if I was winding him up.”
But one US firm that has embraced the ’shorter is better’ approach is Morrison Foerster. The firm is already just two names, but it has now streamlined this even further and typically markets itself as ’MoFo’ (too many blaxploitation films, methinks), including in its graduate recruitment campaign, which uses the slogan ’Release your MoJo - think MoFo’.
After MoFo’s jump maybe others will follow suit? For example, could Sullivan & Cromwell be shortened to SuCro? The upside would be that SuCro rolls off the tongue nicely, but the downside is that it sounds like an artificial sweetener.
Names changes can be difficult for law firms, especially when they merge, as it is not as straightforward as a wife adopting her husband’s surname. In most instances the merged entity will adopt a name containing some of names used by both legacy firms, as was the case with Hogan Lovells.
But some names are dropped with the passing of time. For example, following their merger Hammonds Suddards and Edge & Ellison adopted the name Hammond Suddards Edge, but now the firm is known simply as Hammonds (not to be confused with the big bed shop on London’s Tottenham Court Road).
Making the call
Whatever the case, these names do exist and many have been put in place to recognise the heritage of the firm. The name Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, for example, has a historically sound root. The firm can trace its roots back to 1743, when the Bank of England appointed Samuel Dodd as its solicitor. It took on the name Freshfields with the arrival of James Freshfield, who was a partner in the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, Bruckhaus can trace its roots back to 1840, when the firm’s first office was founded in Hamburg. It merged with Heller Löber Bahn, an Austrian firm, in 1998 to form Bruckhaus Westrick Heller Löber, while Deringer Tessin Hermann & Sedemund was founded in 1962 in Bonn and moved its offices to Cologne in 1970. Freshfields merged with Deringer in the early part of 2000, and then with Bruckhaus later that same year. And there you have it - Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.
So what about Slaughter and May? Did it have a founder who had a history in butchery? Or was it launched by a lawyer who worked on a famous murder case? Well, nothing as exciting as that. In fact Slaughter and May was founded in 1889 by two young solicitors, William Capel Slaughter and William May, who met while training together in the City.
But from the historic to the just plain comic. Some firms have managed to call themselves the most ridiculous of names and many spend the rest of their time defending them. For example, you can find firms in The Lawyer’s UK 200 called Wright Hassall Solicitors, Coffin Mew or even Capsticks (again, not to be confused with lip balm ChapSticks).
And one magic circle partner says, seeing firms with weird and wonderful names is what makes the legal profession unique.
“The little idiosyncrasies you see when you look at the legal profession, particularly with law firms’ names, really amuse me,” says the partner. “It wouldn’t happen in any other profession, and that’s what makes the legal word so special.
“Also, for smaller firms, the name can be a good marketing tool because it can certainly get you noticed and get people talking about you. But you have to strike a balance so you’re still taken seriously as a law firm.” Which bright spark…?
Perhaps the partners at LG, which used to be known as Lawrence Graham, have started to rethink the firm’s new shortened name after being constantly thought to be working for a prominent electronics company.
“There have been many times at dinner parties where people have thought I worked for a mobile phones company rather than a law firm, and it’s embarrassing having to constantly correct people,” explains one partner at the firm. “But as much as it sometimes gets tiresome, I can understand why law firms like mine decide to shorten their names to be thought of as more approachable, modern and forward-thinking.”
Letters of the law
LG is not the only firm to stick with letters. Others in The Lawyer’s UK 200 list include ASB Law, BPE Solicitors, DWF, IBB Solicitors, JMW Solicitors, TLT Solicitors and TWM Solicitors. Your guess is as good as ours as to what they all stand for.
But if you think the law firm names in the UK are bad, you only have only to nip over the Irish Sea to clock some hilarious titles. First, we have Beauchamps, which sounds more like a French designer bag than a law firm. Or how about Cahill & Cahill, so good they named it twice? And as for Gore & Grimes, enough said.
But surely the top name ever is that of now-defunct Irish firm Argue & Phibbs.
The name came about when Talbot Phibbs took his degree at Trinity College in Dublin in 1903 before moving back to Sligo Town, where he entered into a partnership with WH Argue. It has even been reported that in the 1920s Argue and Phibbs considered taking on a third member of staff, a solicitor from England by the name of Cheetam. After Argue’s death the firm continued to trade as Argue & Phibbs until the latter died in 1944.
But whatever the name, be it Shoosmiths (which may conjure up thoughts of a cobblers rather than a law firm), Gordons (not the gin manufacturer) or Moon Beever (fnarr fnarr), law firm names will no doubt continue to provide amusement for years to come. You just have to look at the latest entry in The Lawyer’s UK 200 to find an example. Step forward Blandy & Blandy.