October 23, 2012

Dr. Strangelaw, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Best-Of Lists

Law Practice Magazine

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 Table of Contents

July/August 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 5| Page 64

First Person

Dr. Strangelaw, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Best-Of Lists

My name is Michael. I just bought another advertisement in a law firm “best-of” list. I feel so dirty. Countless hot showers, guilt-ridden visits to confession and intense verbal abuse of best-of list salespeople have brought no peace to my troubled soul. I must do something to make the ugliness go away. Consider this my self-intervention.

Law firms are forced to deal with a monthly maelstrom of marketing materials announcing one or more firm lawyers being named to a best-of list. These lists tout the best practitioners under 40, best lawyers based on ethnicity or gender, or best attorneys in whatever cities, among many other categories. These trolling-for-ad-dollars notices come from national legal trade publications, local business magazines, statewide newspapers, online publishers and practice-area-specific magazines.

Some of these lists have inherent value as reference guides. But let’s be realistic. The majority are thinly veiled, ego-based money grabs. We know that at their core, and in spite of some well-meaning efforts to vet the process, most of these lists exist on the same level as a high school election. Cliques are formed, e-mails go back and forth, and the most popular kids are voted in regardless of who might be the most proficient at running the student council meeting.

Do any of us really believe that Fortune 1000 general counsel are checking to see if an attorney has been recognized as a “Leading Lizard of Law?” This whole process seems to be completely uncontrollable, tantamount to the all-too-appealing sport of shooting fish in a barrel. My legal marketing colleagues often are amused by my fiery rants against the incessant best-of pitches, although the reason behind my exasperation is simple: I know what they’re doing … I used to be in sales.

Long ago, I learned from the polyester-clad old-timers in radio advertising that the best way to extract dollars from a hard-sell case is to appeal to the ego. Self-aggrandizement is an effective motivator. Offer to feature an advertiser, or their child, grandchild or beloved family pet on the airwaves or on a freeway billboard, and the money is sure to flow.

A look at the ad revenue generated by these lawyer lists makes it hard to knock the business strategy. By my review of one recent publication, I can easily estimate a gross of more than $2.5 million for its glossy list of juris doctorates.

While the lawyer lists are targeted to a profession that is, in large part, based on winning and losing, the concept is the same as that of consumer-oriented magazines ranking real estate agents, plastic surgeons or hamburgers. They appeal to a readership that is increasingly fascinated by lists, seeking a quick read and the need to validate that their favorite restaurant, doctor or hairdresser is the “best.”

So what if you don’t make the list? Don’t fret, friend, because you can buy an ad in that issue and the perception will exist that you have been selected among the best as well!

Perhaps I simply envy these best-of money trains because I know how they work. Or maybe my frustration is rooted in the fact that I didn’t create my own list and retire early.

Regardless, after years of running through the village proclaiming the Best-Of Emperor’s obvious nudity, I reluctantly have decided to coexist. These lists are not going away, and lawyer interest remains high, so I figure the least that I can do is ensure that these publications print my firm’s attorneys’ names and practices correctly and, when appropriate, buy the ad. I shall fight no more forever.

Going forward, I hereby pledge to accept the deluge of solicitations with as much dignity as I can muster. I will assign my staff to research, review, submit and provide photographs so that our lawyers are included, whether they appear in time-honored publications or one-time special inserts—to be seen by families, friends and (fingers crossed) an occasional general counsel.

I now can embrace the madness, accept the ego pandering, revel in the artificially created categories for greatness … and love the lists.

About the Author

Michael Webb is the Director of Marketing and Business Development at Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP, one of the Southwest’s largest full-service law firms.