The name game: As law firms grow up, so do their naming conventions

By Jessica Stephen
BridgeTower Media Newswires

MILWAUKEE, WI - Mark Bartels has one regret about his firm changing names from Stellpflug Law to One Law Group.

"I think we should have done it sooner," said Bartels, president of the 10-attorney firm, which has offices in De Pere and Appleton.

Since 1930, the full-service firm - their attorneys practice everything from real estate to criminal law - had been named for its partners.

It's a long-standing tradition and one from which, at least until fairly recently, firms seldom deviated. In fact, when a brave Seattle firm opened in 1997 under the name Summit Law Group, the Washington State Bar threatened to file a grievance.

"Law firms must be named after people," the bar said, according to the American Bar Association.

The Washington Supreme Court later changed its ethics rules to allow non-traditional names and, the ABA reported, Summit kept its name. But it's taken years for anything but the Law Offices of (Insert Name Here) to gain traction within the legal community.

"The feedback we've gotten has been very favorable; 99 percent of people say it's positive because it's catchy and easy to remember," Bartels said. "Maybe one person came out and said, 'That was dumb. Why aren't you Stellpflug Janssen Hammer and Kirschling?'

"Those are traditionalists," he added. "We were traditionalists, too. But I think they're going to have to keep up with the times because I think more firms are going in this direction."

That's definitely true for Michael Brennan, a.k.a. The Virtual Attorney.

Brennan never entertained the idea of Brennan Law when he went solo in 2011, instead favoring a name that more accurately represented his online legal services concept. As an added bonus, the name had built-in search engine optimization.

Also, Brennan admitted, "The legal industry was still kind of in that down space from the economic downturn, so I didn't want to invest too many resources to get started. The idea I had was figuring out a way to reduce the overhead on my end and pass that on to the client. Sort of offer an alternative structure."

What he started was a variation on the theme of LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, both basically, legal automation services.

"I took the legal view of Rocket Lawyers and had an actual attorney backing that."

Once his concept was in place, Brennan said, "The name was pretty obvious."

For Bartels and his partners, the decision to embrace an unconventional name came after five traditional name changes in nearly 15 years; every time a partner left or a new one was added, the name changed.

"The question was always, 'Are we going to add another name to the firm name?' And the response was always, 'Are you kidding me? It's already got six names.'"

In 2008, the firm stripped all but one name from the letterhead and started going by Stellpflug Law.

"It's a fine German name, but the silent P really threw people off," Bartels said. "It was a challenge spelling and getting people to remember it. And, for domain names, we had to reserve a bunch of the misspellings of Stellpflug, so if somebody typed it in wrong they would be redirected to our website."

By 2014, when namesake David Stellpflug retired - his father-in-law helped establish the firm - the remaining partners had had enough.

"We thought we could keep the name, which some law firms do, or we can change it," Bartels said. "And the consensus was that we wanted to change it and go with a non-traditional name, something that was memorable, and start to create a firm brand rather than a roll call of last names."

But choosing a name was not easy.

"We had a list probably 50 names long, and we had to overcome egos; lawyers have big egos and everybody wants their name on the door," Bartels said. "And, all of a sudden, when we went from six names down to one, that was hard for some of the named shareholders to adjust. I'm not sure some did, and they're no longer with us. It's not the only reason they moved on, but I'm sure it was in the back of their heads."

Despite the growing pains, the remaining partners were committed.

"Part of our guiding principles was we wanted to have a name we didn't have to change again - one that could accommodate growth," Bartels said. "We could add attorneys. We could add partners and not have to incur the expense of that. And a lot goes into that, from the sign in the lobby to the sign in the parking lot, letterhead, business cards, websites. It's a lot of expense. We didn't want to do that. We wanted something easy to spell, easy to pronounce. One that was easy to remember."

They considered geography, briefly entertaining Marquette Law in reference to their three-story office building called the Marquette Center in De Pere.

"But what if we moved? What about confusion with the law school and the university and the domain name? It's a nice simple name based on your location, which I think a lot of companies do. But, ultimately, there were too many complications."

The firm also considered outsourcing the decision to a marketing firm.

"It was going to cost us like $10,000, which we thought about doing," Bartels said. "Then we came up with this name. It took a minute to sink in. But, when you think about it, it is kind of catchy and it's short and, externally, you have the image of one law firm meeting all your legal needs. We actually call it the power of one."

Since Jan. 1, 2015, that message has been synonymous with the firm.

"That was our goal: to build a strong, stable brand identity for the firm that we didn't have to change anymore," Bartels said.

It doesn't hurt that it could also add value to the firm.

"Law firms aren't worth that much these days because clients are so mobile and so are attorneys. But I think having a strong brand will help with any potential sale down the road. "

Branding was equally important to Brennan.

"There were other virtual firms out there. But my idea was if I'm going to approach this in a very different way, I need to brand myself in a very different way. So the firm name needed to reflect something new."

And, yet, because it was new, not everyone understood the name.

"People are much more receptive to it now in 2017 than when I started out," Brennan said. "But I still certainly get questions, kind of, 'What's this about?' I get questions from clients. I get questions from other attorneys, 'Hey, I saw your site. How did you go about it? What did you do? Wow, did you find yourself in that space?' I've gotten used to having that conversation. It's kind of built into my sales pitch now."

Even after explaining, Brennan said, some clients just can't embrace the name.

"Some people like me. They want to work with me. But they don't feel that The Virtual Attorney is for them."

So, on a limited basis, Brennan has offered his services under the name Michael F. Brennan Attorney at Law.

"It's closet branding. It's not something I ever even put out there as an option unless I know the person," Brennan said.

Despite the occasional client resistance to the name, Brennan said his unconventional approach has accomplished everything he hoped. And, like Bartels, he believes his non-traditional brand could give him future marketability.

"It does give me a lot of flexibility. I've had some serious thoughts for a few years about where I might go with it, if I might change what I do. With the name I have, I can do that, as opposed to being Michael F. Brennan in 50 states. It remains on my radar."

For now, Brennan works with clients in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, where he keeps a home base in Grayslake, Ill.

"Time will tell if the term 'virtual attorney' turns into a dinosaur, like World Wide Web did. But if I see the tides turn, I'll try to stay out ahead," he said.

Published: Fri, Mar 03, 2017