Long law firm names are often shortened when they’re talked about:

Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld … becomes ‘Akin, Gump’.

Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy … becomes ‘Milbank’.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom … becomes ‘Skadden’.

This phenomenon is so established, there’s a term for it:  street names.

The obvious reason for this practice: people don’t find these long names sayable.  One of the most important properties of a good name is  sayability.  If you don’t provide people with a name that is sayable, people will shorten it to something that IS.  The danger here is that you have no control over what they will come up with.

Exhibit A:  The well known cases of Morrison Foerster, street name MoFo, and Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, street name PMS.

Taking a look at how some well-known law firms have shortened their own names (some embracing their street names), we find an interesting pattern.  In all of these names the strong stress falls on the first syllable, a stress pattern that English speakers love.  When there are two words to the firm name in these examples, the first three syllables show the pattern, strong stress-light stress-strong stress, another pattern that English speakers love.  Again the evidence points to sayability.

FEN-wick  (contrast the original FENwick & WEST, not quite the same ring to it)

COO-ley

LA-tham

OR-rick

SKA-dden

A-kin GUMP

QUINN [e]-MAN-uel

Some firms resist this shortening trend.  Problem is, if they do, they run the risk of looking out of touch.  Worse, those attorneys resisting the removal of their name will call this attention directly upon themselves.  Instead of mourning the loss of their name in lights, attorneys who hope to highlight their contribution to the law firm might play a role translating their vision into the firm’s brand and branding messages.

What’s great about these shortening practices is that personal names are like made up words to us, like Skype;  they don’t have any meaning in English.  The meaning of a personal name is the person it refers to.

This means that law firms that shorten their string of names to a single name perform a nifty sleight of hand, changing the new name into a brand word.  Since personal names have no inherent English meaning, the law firm is free to create the definition for this new word – and the definition is its brand.  This works for all personal names.  In my opinion, the more unusual the name, the better the opportunity.  All the more memorable. Orrick.  Littler.  Drinker & Biddle.  Akin, Gump.

According to attorney Eric Ruff of bankruptcylawhelp.com, whose grandfather Wallace Ruff and colleague Thomas Ready formed the law firm Ruff & Ready, “At the time my grandfather practiced, it was illegal for attorneys to advertise. As a result, fresh law school grads hanging out their shingles actively sought partners based upon their law names as a form of legal advertising.” [- 2007, Concurringopinions.com forum, permission to repost granted by Eric Ruff.]

Word of mouth.  They nailed it.

My advice to law firms:  find your inner Orrick.  Embrace this trend.