YourABA: November 2013
YourABA November 2013 Masthead

10 tips for approaching lawyer rankings and ratings

A positive ranking can be a nice feather in the cap for a lawyer or law firm, but as the rating business has expanded and changed, experts on an American Bar Association panel advised lawyers on the best ways to manage their participation in this industry.

Just because these organizations and publications exist does not mean that lawyers should automatically participate in them, said Micah Buchdahl, president of HTMLawyers Inc. and past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division.

  1. Research ratings organizations and educate yourself on their methodology differences (selection criteria).

    The experts said lawyers should verify that a ratings organization is bona fide, or has legitimate selection criteria. Steven Naifeh, co-founder and co‑editor of Best Lawyers, the oldest peer-review guide to the legal profession, said that because ratings groups are facing increased scrutiny from bar associations, “we are now forced to make our methodology clear. The question becomes, is that methodology transparent? … Does it make sense to you? … Is it actually applied by the publication? Just because you have a methodology doesn’t mean you use it.”

  2. Be selective in deciding which ratings organizations to work with.

    “I think the best way for lawyers to assess these rankings is really to just apply one’s knowledge of the lawyers in the field,” Naifeh said. “The reason [Best Lawyers] gained some traction early on was that lawyers would look at the category or the practice area that they were themselves in … and decide whether that list seemed to be the right one in their own opinion.”

  3. Be wary of any veiled “pay to play” opportunities to receive an “honor.”

    The experts warned that companies running these types of operations are not considered legitimate by bar associations. Buchdahl gave the example of, a ratings site in the late 1990s that would rank lawyers as “A-plus rated” if they simply paid $200. “Needless to say, within a short period of time, LawyersDepot, their ratings and rankings, no longer existed,” he said.

  4. Ensure ratings organizations have the most accurate data about your practice.

    Naifeh said keeping rankings updated is difficult and takes an enormous amount of time and attention — especially if the organization doesn’t rely on lawyers to do the updating themselves. Best Lawyers does not. “We’ve learned you can’t,” he said. “A certain percentage of lawyers will do it, but if it’s really going to be updated every year, you have to jump in and make sure that the information is accurate and that rating is still deserved year after year.”

  5. Follow all relevant bar association guidelines on the use of awards or ratings in advertisements.

    Elizabeth Tarbert, ethics counsel for the Florida Bar since 1997, said bar association rules vary from state to state, with some states taking a more active approach by providing specific guidelines for ratings participation and advertising. “If it’s a legitimate entity using some kind of uniformly applied criteria, then generally it’s going to be permissible for the lawyer to participate in both the system of getting the ranking or the rating and later advertising that ranking or rating once that lawyer has obtained it,” she said.

    Naifeh said that although the bar rules can be inconvenient from time to time, “it is absolutely essential given the potential for ratings publications not to do this in the most professional manner and with integrity.”

  6. Use the actual name of the awarding organization and the rating in advertisements.

    “That’s to give consumers enough information so that they, themselves, could get the information about the entity,” Tarbert said.

  7. Provide the year that the award was given in ads (unless it’s from the current year).

    In some states, “if you were chosen one year and you don’t get chosen in another year, they actually refer to it in the ethics opinions as having been ‘delisted’ from a particular ranking or rating service,” Tarbert said. “In that circumstance, they said you must have the year, otherwise you could mislead consumers into believing it is something that is continuous and ongoing when it clearly isn’t.”

  8. Distinguish in ads whether the rating was given to the firm or an individual lawyer in the firm.

    “For some awards, rankings and ratings, they are specific to an individual and not to be extrapolated to the entire firm,” Tarbert said.

  9. Don’t publicize awards that use “specialist,” “expert,” “certified” or other variations of these terms unless the organization is accredited by your bar association.

    Tarbert recommended steering clear of these “magic words” because many states have rules about implying or stating specialization or expertise. Some states require that if an ad lists an area of practice and uses these types of words, the lawyer also has to indicate in the ad whether he or she is actually certified in that area in the state, she said. “If it’s just the field of practice without mentioning one of those magic words — certified, specialist or expert — then it’s fine to list your area of practice without having any specific disclaimer,” Tarbert said.

  10. Be careful how your ads characterize the rating — do not call it “prestigious,” “distinguished,” etc.

    Tarbert warned lawyers about how they portray their rankings in advertisements. “It’s OK to give consumers an objectively verifiable fact; that is, that I’ve been selected for inclusion in this magazine, or I’ve obtained this particular ranking and award,” she said. “What’s not OK in a lot of states is how many lawyers choose to characterize it."

    Buchdahl added that good ratings should complement your marketing, not be the marketing.

For more guidance on advertising lawyer ratings, view ABA Model Rules 7.1-7.4 or contact your local bar association. “Lawyer Rankings and Ratings: The Impact on Ethics and the Profession” is part of the ABA’s CLE Premier Speaker Series, a monthly program where members can earn free continuing legal education credits. The next webinar, “The Changing Landscape of Trade Secrets and Restrictive Covenants,” will take place Monday, Nov. 18.

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