Move over Dull, Boring & Stiff. Law firm trade names are finding their place

4 minute read

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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(Reuters) - It doesn’t take an astute observer to notice a pattern in law firm names: White Guy, White Guy & White Guy.

Yes, firm names reflect the profession's historical lack of diversity, but there's another reason that they have remained so staid over the years: Until relatively recently, bar rules in several states including New York prohibited law firms from using trade names, limiting them instead to identifying themselves by the names of current, retired or deceased partners.

As of mid-2021, however, a series of holdout state bars across the country had scrapped such rules, greenlighting the use of broader trade names.

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So is it time for law firm to rethink their names, shedding the monikers of their founders in favor of more catchy, less stodgy descriptors?

Los Angeles-based trial and appellate boutique Waymaker LLP is on board.

Formerly known as Baker Marquart, the 18-lawyer firm founded in 2006 by two Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan alums changed its name to Waymaker last year.

I caught up with erstwhile name partners Ryan Baker and Jaime Marquart to ask why they decided to take their names off the door and how the move has been received.

“We wanted to create something that would be more representative of everyone at the firm, not just two Caucasian males,” Baker told me. “It’s more inclusive.”

The new name encompasses the “contributions of a diverse group of talent,” Marquart added — something that “was not represented by my name and Ryan’s.”

With clients including Bank of the West, DirecTV, Mattel Inc and Rolls-Royce, the firm as Baker Marquart had amassed “a decade and a half of goodwill,” Baker acknowledged. Ditching the name was not something they took lightly.

A recent change in bar rules helped pave the way.

In 2020, Utah-based consumer protection firm LawHQ sued disciplinary and bar officials in nine states that still prohibited law firm trade names, arguing that the bans violated the 1st Amendment and served no valid purpose.

“Nobody could claim that consumers would be better protected if trade names were prohibited in other industries — if the law required Facebook, for example, to be called Mark Zuckerberg & Associates or Apple to be called Jobs & Wozniak,” lawyers for LawHQ argued. “Law firms are no different.”

LawHQ counsel Rebecca Evans and founder Thomas Alvord did not respond to requests for comment.

The state bars folded without a fight. By 2021, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska and Rhode Island had all revised their rules of professional conduct to allow law firm trade names, provided they are not false or misleading.

Baker and Marquart have eyed New York for potential expansion, they told me. The rule change meant that if or when they make a move, they’d be able to do so under a trade name.

“That was absolutely a factor,” Marquart said.

The Waymaker name offered other advantages over Baker Marquart as well.

For one thing, the duo was well-aware of the legal marketing trend to shorten firm names by adopting one-name monikers like Cooley.

“Baker” was never going to be an option for them though —not with Baker McKenzie; Baker Botts and Baker Donelson all looming large in the market.

“Marquart” didn’t quite have the right ring either.

For a short, snappy name, the firm would need to look elsewhere.

Moreover, they’d faced internal pressure to add names to the masthead. One lawyer even left the firm after they said no, they told me.

Using a trade name eliminates such drama.

To make the switch, the firm hired a specialist in rebranding and allocated a six-figure budget for the transition.

Coming up with a name and then testing it internally and externally was a big undertaking. “We didn’t just want to adopt some random noun,” Baker explained.

(So, no Lynx Litigation or Pedigree Attorneys or Eagle Law —among the suggestions I got from a free, online business name generator when I plugged in a few key terms.)

They also took pains to mitigate market confusion among current and potential clients. “We worried people would think we merged with another firm or were bought out,” Marquart said. “I would not recommend just slapping a new name on the door and hoping for the best.”

Overall, the Waymaker name “has been a positive,” Baker said.

“Law firms are steeped in tradition,” Marquart added. “But you can miss a lot of opportunities when you’re resistant to change.”

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com