City elite in brand war over law to ban ‘lazy’ possessive suffixes

A storm has erupted among City law firms over the use of the possessive ‘s’ at the end of firms’ names, with rival groups of managing partners at loggerheads over the controversial linguistic form.

Will Lawes
Will Lawes

Leaders at outfits including Pinsent Masons, Slaughter and May and SJ Berwin have formed a campaign group planning to outlaw the use of the suspect consonant through a petition and are aiming to obtaining the 100,000 signatures needed for the cause to be considered for debate in the House of Commons.

The troublesome variants in question are ‘Pinsents’, ‘Slaughters’ and ‘Berwins’, all of which are understood to be seen as diversions from the firms’ branding objectives.

Others signatories to Possessives Out (PO) include Addleshaw Goddard, Clyde & Co, CMS Cameron McKenna, Pinsent Masons and Wragge & Co, which are campaigning against the use of the tags ‘Addleshaws’, ‘Clydes’, ‘Camerons’, ‘Pinsents’ and ‘Wragges’, respectively.

However, since being formed in late March, PO has been hit by a counter-protest led by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters, both of which have integrated the possessive ‘s’ into their official names.

The duo – joined by firms such as Eversheds, Hogan Lovells and Macfarlanes – are arguing fiercely that the suffix has become a standard feature of law firm names and is thus normative linguistic usage.

The counter-protest, dubbed Possessive Compulsive (PC), is chaired by Freshfields senior partner Will Lawes.

Lawes claimed: “Our founder was called [James William] Freshfield, without the ‘s’, but using the extra letter is a crucial indication that we are a firm and not just one person. Plus, the use of a possessive ‘s’ symbolises the ownership nature of a partnership. It’s for these reasons that we’ve joined the counter-protest against the inane anti-possessive petition.”

David Ryan
David Ryan

But a managing partner at a PO member countered: “To hear people dropping in the ‘s’ at the end of our name is irritating and frankly lazy. And even if they do choose to use the possessive, they could at least remember the apostrophe.”

Meanwhile, a Pinsents spokesperson said: “We’re delighted to support this campaign and are committed to the highest possible standards of grammatical accuracy, innit.”

PO, whose president is Pinsents managing partner David Ryan, has not yet launched the petition but currently has pledges from roughly 500 partners and staff insisting they will sign the plea. Should the anti-possessive campaign be successful, the firms are aiming to have the law drafted by the end of the 2013/14 financial year. PC claims to have more than 600 individuals informally signed up and is understood to be considering legal action if the PO petition sees the light of day.

However, whether PO intends to inflict the ban on firms such as Freshfields that have already formally taken on the final ‘s’ is unclear.

Stuck in the middle of the fight is Nabarro, which was informally known as ‘Nabarros’ until it rebranded from Nabarro Nathanson in 2007 (28 February 2007).

A spokesperson for Nabarro argued that the decision was now paying off six years later, with the firm managing to avoid the quarrelling affecting some of its rivals.

In a statement the firm said: “We took a long hard look at the possessive ‘s’ in 2007. It was clear to us that by dropping ‘Nathanson’ from the firm’s name, we would establish a ‘branding singularity’, transcending the issues so many of our competitors are only now confronting.”

The possessive ‘s’ leaders: who’s who

Possessives Out:

President: David Ryan, managing partner, Pinsent Masons


Addleshaw Goddard

Clyde & Co

CMS Cameron McKenna

Maclay Murray & Spens

Mishcon de Reya

Pinsent Masons

SJ Berwin

Slaughter and May

Speechly Bircham

Wragge & Co

Possessive Compulsive:

Chairman: Will Lawes, senior partner, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer


Berrymans Lace Mawer


Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Hogan Lovells