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In the market for a law firm? How about Litiga, the litigation group? Or Taxpros, the taxation professionals? Or Mergeraq, mergers and acquisitions aces?

Those may sound like distinctly unlawyerly monikers, but firms in Ontario once known by cumbersome surname lists such as Lawson McGrenere Rose & Clemenhagen (yes, that's a real one) may soon begin to ditch their infamous tongue twisters and replace them with descriptive or trade names -- the kind that made us snap up Acura cars and Compaq computers.

That prospect, if not yet a reality, is part of a professional rule change recently approved by the Law Society of Upper Canada aimed at unleashing the brand tiger within a profession that has stood as the last outpost against snappy marketing labels.

"Law firm names are becoming institutionalized," says Malcolm Heins, chief executive officer of the Law Society, which regulates conduct and standards in the profession. "The law firm name rule, we felt, didn't adequately enable the use of names that lawyers really felt best described their practice in an appropriate way."

Until the change, firms in Ontario were restricted to using the surnames of current or deceased partners licensed to practise in the province. The principle was intended to convey a direct connection between the client and the people behind the business, as well as guaranteeing a certain decorum.

But times are changing in the legal world, and the prospect of growing cross-border work, in particular, has been a key impetus behind the change.

Specifically, Ontario firms licensed to practise U.S. law could not, under the former rules, include a U.S. partner in their names unless that partner was also licensed to practise in Ontario.

It was a regulatory straitjacket that notably bubbled to the surface about four years ago when Torys LLP sought to rebrand itself from Tory Tory DesLauriers & Binnington to Tory Haythe after its merger with New York firm Haythe & Curley. That proposal quickly ran afoul of the rules because the second name was not that of a lawyer licensed to practise in Ontario.

Instead, says Torys partner John Laskin, the firm decided to go with a one-word identifier as a practical matter. "Our receptionists would answer the phone Torys and that's how the firm got known," he says. "It did seem like the logical name to carry on, and we feel as though we've built that brand in both Canada and New York."

Problems over the name rule have also provided a chuckle or two over the years. Some lawyers like to tell the story of how the big Chicago-based international law firm Baker & McKenzie years ago found itself in a quandary when it entered the Toronto market.

Luckily, the firm had a Sam Baker as a partner in the Toronto office, but alas lacked a McKenzie on the payroll licensed to practise in Ontario. It subsequently hired a lawyer with the appropriate last name, rendering the issue moot, as it were. "We were actively looking for someone we would want to hire but whose name was McKenzie," says Stewart Saxe, managing partner of Baker & McKenzie's Toronto office. "We weren't looking for a Smith or a Jones or a Henkelheimer."

Adopting a simple, uniform name for international as well as domestic use is seen as critical to attracting business in the growing global trade in legal services, where brand recognition is paramount.

In fact, several Bay Street firms in recent years also formalized their street abbreviations, including Lerners LLP for Lerner & Associates, and Goodmans LLP for the former Goodman & Goodman.

Ontario's move effectively brings the province into line with more name-progressive jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, which has permitted descriptive or trade names that do not conflict with its broader rules prohibiting misleading or unprofessional advertising. Alberta and Manitoba, too, have taken to merely outlawing misleading names.

Curiously, even the adoption of Torys four years ago was construed by some as pushing the envelope, but the law society agreed it upheld the spirit of the rule since Torys was merely a convenient shorthand for the firm's founding twin brothers, James Tory and John Tory Sr.

Gavin MacKenzie, a partner at Heenan Blaikie LLP and author of the book Lawyers & Ethics: Professional Responsibility and Discipline, says the Ontario amendment reflects a trend on the part of the law society toward loosening restrictions in matters that have no bearing on competence and professional conduct. It follows, for example, the lifting years ago of an outright ban against advertising (though content restrictions still apply).

"I think the prevailing view would be that it's sort of silly to even get into a question of whether the law society should be enforcing a rule where a firm takes the name Tory Tory and makes it into Torys," says Mr. MacKenzie, who is also a member of the law society's professional regulation committee.

Another arguably Draconian clause that was struck down years ago was a regulation governing the dimensions of a business card.

Simultaneous with the liberalized policy on names, firms in Ontario are now free to make restricted advertising claims on letterhead, opening the door to such descriptive phrases as "specializing in personal injury."

One law society bencher long opposed to prohibitions on letterhead is Gordon Bobesich, a sole practitioner with an office in Mississauga. Letterhead, he says, should fall under the general rules governing advertising. "As far as I'm concerned, there are too many rules."

But letterhead restrictions remain. For example, firms won't be permitted to make subjective claims on their mailing correspondence, such as "No. 1 in mergers and acquisitions."

Names, too, will be policed for misleading or offensive content. Among those deemed offside would be "University Legal Clinic," for example, because it implies a connection with, and apparent endorsement of, another institution.

A name such as "Bob's Law" also would be off-limits because it might generate uncertainty over who controls the practice. And for obvious reasons it's unlikely we'll be seeing Yellow Pages ads for "ClassAct -- The Class-Action Kings" any time soon.

Despite what appears to be a general consensus on the recent amendments, few lawyers expect a stampede to the name registry.

One firm that intends to resist even the add-an-S-and-cut-the-rest trend is Aird & Berlis LLP. "We're very proud of our founding partners," says managing partner David Malach of the late John Aird and Doug Berlis. "We don't want to be called Airds."

Acknowledging there may be a sizable grey area when it comes to misleading or offensive monikers, the law society plans to approve criteria for its staff to provide advice on a name's acceptability.

Litiga, Taxpro, Mergeraq? That remains to be seen.

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