August 2016 Bar Bulletin
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August 2016 Bar Bulletin

Nine Reasons Your Law Firm Doesn’t Need Your Surname

By Greg McLawsen


McLawsen Tower. McLawsen Grand Casino. McLawsen Steaks? My own surname doesn’t lend quite the right panache. Not that I didn’t have the opportunity. When my wife and I got married during grad school, we reengineered our last names (merging Walsen and McCraw) and in retrospect could have gone with something catchier.

When it came to naming my immigration law firm, I didn’t want my surname on the letterhead. From the start, one of my goals was to build a client experience that was associated with my firm, Sound Immigration, rather than myself personally.

Washington lawyers are permitted to use trade names, so long as they are not misleading.1 While trade names were relatively unusual just a few years ago, they are now widespread. I spoke to my colleagues in the small practice community about why they departed from the “Surname Law Firm” model or why they wish they had.

1. Distinct Brand Identity from the Lawyer(s)

Use of a trade name can be the first step toward building a strong brand identity for a law firm. As Shreya Biswas Ley of LayRoots ( puts it, a trade name “projects an image of a company rather than a person.”

For Ley and her husband, who advise early-stage businesses, she said, “We wanted to evoke an ethos around helping businesses and families lay solid roots for a successful business and future. We went with LayRoots because we were thinking of the huge oak trees in New Orleans where we went to law school and the fact that we love the outdoors.”

2. Ability To Grow Painlessly

If “Surname, Attorney at Law” ever wants to expand, she is going to have a challenge. Perhaps your new associate won’t mind working in Surname’s shadow. But a lawyer of equal stature in the community will probably also want equal billing on the letterhead.

As IP attorney Mark Jordan of Bracepoint Law ( puts it, “Most importantly, I never want to get in an argument about whose name goes first on the letterhead.” That will mean at the very least a rebranding to tack on Surname II. Why not make things easier from the get-go?

Michelle Dellino was a law clerk colleague of mine at Kitsap Superior Court, and like me she opened her own firm after our clerkship. Now owner of the eponymous Dellino Law Group (, Dellino says in retrospect she would have done it differently.

“When I started my practice I initially planned for it to be small, like a true solo practice and decided to use my own name, Dellino Law,” she said. “But quickly I realized that I wanted to take it in a different direction and began to treat it like more of a business than just a solo practice and added the dba “Dellino Law Group.” If I had foreseen the growth trajectory initially and planned for a small firm rather than a solo practice, I would have used a different name for branding.”

3. Brand Stability

Brand stability is the flip side of the growth issue. It takes years for a law firm to gain standing in the community as a reliable and trustworthy provider of great legal services. Changing the firm’s name brings the serious communication challenge of ensuring that folks know that You are still You (plus one or more as the case may be).

As Loriann Miller of Ardent Law ( points out, “I dislike that law firms change their names every time a partner changes.” For that matter, Miller points out, even if “Surname Law Firm” remains a one-lawyer shop, what happens when the lawyer gets married?

Name changes are confusing for a public and colleagues who don’t devote much mental bandwidth to your business. Make it easier by sticking with a name that doesn’t need changing.

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