The AmLaw awards were a choice opportunity to stand out from the pack, especially for firms that don’t have star partners whose names draw top cases like magnets. Yet firms that do have star partners also face a problem if they’re perceived as “old news” by editor-judges looking for “rising stars” to spice up things. Often these firms especially need to demonstrate bench strength and confirm their long-term viability.
The winners of the 2005 award included both types of litigation boutique. First place went to San Francisco’s Keker & Van Ness, with Houston’s Susman Godfrey in the runner-up spot. Both firms are spearheaded by star lawyers: John Keker and Steve Susman.
The other honorees were Chicago’s star-studded Bartlit Beck; Houston’s Beck Redden and Secrest; and Zuckerman Spaeder, a national powerhouse based in Washington, D.C.
Such a diverse list naturally begs the question: How in heaven’s name do you go about winning such a contest?
Six Steps Toward the Prize
First, all partners must commit to taking the submittal process as seriously as an RFP. Zuckerman Spaeder, for example, dedicated a top partner who worked on the AmLaw application with the same energy he might have invested in a closing argument.
Second, you want to include a broad variety of partners. The best firm isn’t the one that wins the “best” cases with the “best” partners. It’s the one that can also demonstrate excellence throughout the firm. This type of thinking is always a great marketing practice anyway.
Third, underscore the significance of the cases that the firm has handled. When AmLaw cited Keker & Van Nest, for instance, it emphasized that the firm’s victories—especially for frontier industry clients—were precedent setting. If your work has decisively affected an entire industry, articulate that clearly.
Fourth, admit failures. The judges are too sophisticated to expect victory every time out. As the saying goes, “If you ain’t losin’, you ain’t playin’.” Keker & Van Nest fully disclosed its unsuccessful efforts on behalf of Frank Quattrone yet was justly proud of those efforts.
Fifth, treat each component of the practice with equal seriousness. Again, think in terms of an RFP. If, for instance, an RFP demands a show of appellate strength and you don’t have an appellate practice, you’re wasting your time trying to fake it. The same applies here.
Sixth, strive to highlight the firm’s culture. Showcase the role of associates in big wins. It proves that the firm is a great breeding ground, that it attracts top young lawyers. If like Zuckerman Spaeder, your lawyers comprise a roster of top former prosecutors, that too reflects on the firm’s hothouse culture. Again, bench strength!
Winning Isn’t Everything
“How do I win?” is naturally a big question. But there’s a second question that’s just as important: “What do I do if I win?”
Here, Susman Godfrey’s response was exemplary. The firm spared no effort to secure all rights to reprint and publicize the honorific. Fortuitously, the publicity effort exploited a surefire news hook: the fact that two of the five winners were in Houston.
The general media doesn’t care that much about law firms in and of themselves, but television stations in Houston do care about Houston. By being willing to share the spot-light with Beck Redden, Susman Godfrey grabbed the immediate attention of KHOU, a CBS affiliate.
In addition to lots of ink, the strategy resulted in prime-time news coverage featuring two of Susman Godfrey’s most spectacular recent successes. Plus, two partners were interviewed, but not Susman himself—underscoring that this firm isn’t just about one man.It was unprecedented TV exposure for a law firm. For all its past honorifics, Susman Godfrey took the AmLaw competition seriously enough to win it. And, like all great marketers, the firm also understood that winning is only a first step.
Richard S. Levick ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lawyer and President of Levick Strategic Communications, which has directed media for top firms around the globe.