As a pseudo-poet once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Take a look at some of the names that law firms are now sporting, and the same nugget of insight applies.
Law firm names of old predictably carried a string of three or four surnames of partners, some of them even deceased. Now there is a new twist to the name game. There’s a national trend, albeit somewhat slow to come to Virginia, toward more generic names.
But when a firm carries a name such as “Legal Lawyers” or “The Truth, Justice and the American Way Law Offices” is a potential client left wondering, “Just who is in this firm, and what do they practice anyway?”
But in most cases, there is a clear rationale behind the decision to use a firm name that some might consider vague. Some lawyers in such firms even say that these more generic names are better, whether the name appeals for brevity of uniqueness.
The generic names can make a world of difference between gaining a new client or losing one to the deluge of firms made up of a string of last names, they said.
The Heritage Legal Group, P.L.C. is one of new kids on the block as far as names go. The firm, recently formed by an association between the Northern Virginia law firms of Hall & Sickels, P.C. and Garnier & Garnier, P.C. announced the change within the last few months.
According to Robert L. Garnier, the two law firms will retain their old identities, but will share The Heritage Legal Group name between them. The individual firms will also keep their separate offices, with Garnier & Garnier in Falls Church, and Hall & Sickels in Reston.
According to Michael J. Garnier, several reasons went into the name for the new firm.
“[The name] is a reflection of what we think is a heritage of excellence in law in the Northern Virginia area, and the name also denotes a father-son heritage in the firm,” he said. “It’s a name that indicates something that’s rooted in tradition.”
Charles W. Sickels, managing partner at Hall & Sickels, agrees that the name is meant to invoke a sense of tradition and a strong foundation in the law firm.
“The name ‘Heritage’ did that well,” he said. “Names in and of themselves become less important, especially in the computer age. It’s a readily identifiable name rather than a string of names.”
But what is now rooted in traditions and foundations could have been rooted in controversyone possibility that was considered for the new name was the “Lee Jackson Law Firm.”
“With that name, we were borrowing on historical significance,” Sickels said. “But we wanted something broader than Virginia history, and without controversy.”
According to Michael Garnier, the new firm will have more of an effect on new clients.
“The retention of identities will have more to do with existing clients,” he said. “Each firm will provide strengths that the other half might not have. Heritage will serve clients that the strengths of the blending might serve. The new firm will also be more focused on new businesses, and when a client needs the services of the firm.”
As with other such names, the goal of The Heritage Legal Group is to make it simpler to identify the firm, but Michael Garnier admits that some disadvantages may surface.
“The prospect exists that [people] won’t know immediately who the partners are, and they won’t have that information,” he said. “We do intend to be clear, and if someone gets past the letterhead they’ll know who they’re working with.”
Other firm names aim to be more straightforward about what they dobut they still keep the answer to who does it a mystery.
Roanoke lawyer Agnis C. Chakravorty, a former principal of The Center for Employment Law, P.C., said they gave the firm a name that would reflect the kind of law they practiced.
“We used that name because we only practiced labor and employment law,” he said. “It was a good marketing tool that said what we did. We just wanted to be differentwe wanted to stand out.”
The firm, which no longer exists, also faced disadvantages because of the name, Chakravorty said. Potential clients who weren’t familiar with the firm couldn’t readily identify the lawyers within the firm.
“Other people thought we were a public interest group or a think tank,” he said. “We also got chuckles from people in the community and the bar because there weren’t many firms that had names like that at the time.”
Another Roanoke lawyer, Sharon R. Chickering of Trial Lawyers, P.C., said they also wanted to use their firm name to indicate the kind of work their office does.
“It was something that indicated to the public that we go to court a lot,” she said. “We wanted to indicate that trial work was what we did.”
Most clients aren’t bothered by the name, but it’s not unusual for people to get confused whether or not the firm takes cases based on if they will go to court, she said.
“But it’s a positive thing, ultimately,” Chickering said. “We’ve gotten a good response, and it conveys what we do. It gives the idea of being staid.”
While some lawyers believe surnames are key to gaining recognition, other lawyers new to the area are starting from ground zero with little to no familiarity connected with their name.
Such was the case when Richmond lawyer Paul H. Kunberger, founding member of the Advocates Group, P.C., relocated from the Washington, D.C. area several years ago.
“My partner at the time was a recent law school graduate, and we didn’t have much name recognition then,” he said. “[The Advocates Group] was a nice-sounding name which expressed our philosophy. We’re also doing a bit of international projects, and ‘advocate’ is cognitive with ‘lawyer,’ and it translates well internationally.”
Although Kunberger was hesitant at first to use a more generic namehe said he tends to favor the more traditional firm nameshe feels it’s “basically inertia at this point.
“It’s also easy to remember, and you can create an identity that way,” he said. “Although you do sacrifice individual name recognition, and it reduces personal visibility. We’ve also had some problems with people thinking we’re a pro bono group.”
But while there are law firms among law firms around the state, there is a lawyer in Roanoke who has his own personal generic nameLawyer Bob. He said he uses that appellationas is the case with the firmsto keep it simple.
In reality, Lawyer Bob is Robert Szathmary, who said he uses his full name for his law firm, but judges and clients often call him Lawyer Bob.
“[The name] has evolved over the years, mainly because people have problems with pronouncing my last name,” he said. “I tell people to call me Robert, Lawyer Bob, whatever.”
While the nickname is imprinted on his license plate and is used in his telephone book listing, he said this is the last year he will be listed in the yellow pages as Lawyer Bob.
“I’m sure people will call me Lawyer Bob forever, though,” he said.