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Law Firm Histories

The conclusion of Downton Abbey has me thinking about law firm web copy.

Say what, now?

I’m speaking, of course, of law firm histories.

It is very tempting to commemorate a big anniversary with a self-congratulatory press release, collateral or web copy. It used to be fairly common. I once covered the 25th anniversary of the founding of a Valley firm. They ordered a giant “25” ice sculpture and the partners posed around it. Other than the debut of New Coke, I cannot remember a more ridiculous media event.

I won’t go into the reasons why firms commission histories, or devote more than a passing glance at the firm’s gestation on its website. What I will tell you is why it’s nearly always self-centered, not client-centered, and therefore pointless.

There are a few exceptions, but in the main leave them lie where they belong.

Firm histories show a firm is living in the past. Glorifying “we got there first” doesn’t speak much of where you are today. Clients are not hiring dead partners. They are hiring the live ones. In an ideal world, you could lead with the fact that your IP firm acquired the first patent. But since that happened in 1790, I doubt that applies.

I was once hired to write a law firm’s history to honor its centennial. The firm had a storied past, one deeply embedded with the history of California and Chief Justice Earl Warren. But as I tried to tie the firm’s legacy to its stature today, it became increasingly clear that its glory days were behind them. It was soon acquired and the centennial copy was left on the dust heap of history.

This reminds me of one of Violet, the Dowager Countess’s famous lines: “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel.”

There are plenty of venerable firms founded more than 100 years ago that no longer exist. To wit: Coudert Brothers, 1853; Heller Ehrman, 1890; Dewey, 1909; Thelen, 1924; Brobeck, 1926; Howrey, 1956. You get the picture. It. Didn’t. Matter.

Conversely, Morrison & Foerster was founded in 1883. Pretty damn impressive, right? So why is there not a whiff of it on the firm’s site? Because clients don’t care. They want forward-looking firms, not those that look backward.

When is it permissible to laud a firm’s legacy? Use these examples as a guide:

1. Your founding partner went to law school to right the wrongs he saw committed daily against immigrants living in his neighborhood tenements. The firm today has a robust pro bono practice. It’s the spirit that lives on. It’s impossible not to feel good about that.

2. You are an IP firm whose ancestors represented Thomas Edison. Now there’s a legacy. Still, it doesn’t merit more than a few paragraphs, though it could make a good tagline, as in: “From Edison to Electric Cars, Patents R Us is there for You.” This only works, of course, if you have a nationally ranked patent practice.

3. You helped Andrew Carnegie obtain the land he needed to build his railroad empire. If you have one of the top five transportation or finance practices, this is noteworthy. Otherwise, it harkens to a bygone era that may as well be prehistoric for all clients care.

See the trend here? History is only relevant in light of today’s accomplishments. If you look back, create a narrative arc (See my post on law firm narratives here) to the present day. Otherwise limit the firm’s history to the art in a conference room.

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