PLAYING THE RATINGS GAME: PERSPECTIVES ON THE LAWYER-ACCOLADES INDUSTRY
There are more than 1,000 rankings and ratings addressing the legal profession, many of them spawned by new Internet-based ratings and methodologies. As a result, the only way a lawyer today could avoid being ranked, rated, surveyed, profiled or simply mentioned is to try really hard to avoid it. In most cases, you can’t.
For those who relish the ego stroke of such “honors,” a few clicks of an online survey or calls to some colleagues could get you on the road to fame (and maybe fortune). But if you aren’t careful in your choices, these efforts could also backfire.
Consider this: In 1999 the online directory LawyerDepot promoted the ability to “locate a high-quality, ultra-conscientious, consumer-rated lawyer.” The publishers defined LawyerDepot lawyers as “the best ‘handpicked,’ consumer-rated lawyers on the planet.” It turned out that an A+ rated lawyer needed just a few hundred bucks to secure such a rating. And some of those A+ ranked had already been disbarred.
In the decade since, the proliferation of this multimillion-dollar cottage industry has only led to more questions about credibility and ethics—as well as freedom of information issues. Here’s a look at some of the key questions and some of the major players.
The Fight for Dollars
Competing directory and ratings businesses make claims of unique credibility through methodologies that range from in-person interviews of lawyers and clients to online surveys. While the ratings themselves are not “advertising,” once you throw them onto a Web site biography or into a Yellow Pages listing, or tout them in a commercial or press release, you’ve entered the realm of the state ethics rules. Staying on safe ground can be difficult to navigate.
Law firms face a lot of decisions regarding which services to participate in, or whether to purchase enhanced promotional opportunities to accompany their ratings and rankings. As if those choices aren’t enough, there is a cottage industry within the cottage industry—consulting services offering to help a law firm prepare and track ranking opportunities. There are dozens of law marketing programs offering tips for getting rated and improving your rankings. In some cases, the very entities are participants in the programs; in others, a range of “experts” will sell you subjective opinions of their own.
But between all the state and national rankings, special supplements in legal and nonlegal publications, local and regional online and offline surveys, studies and interviews, who is anyone to truly say they can separate the contenders from the pretenders? For the real estate lawyer in a small community, a Pennysaver Readers Choice list might carry real weight. For others, it could be an AV rating in Martindale-Hubbell or a first-tier in Chambers USA. The multitude of lists in Incisive Media publications (the artist formerly known as ALM) is never-ending—from deal making to litigating to attorney satisfaction survey results.
There is no arguing that Martindale-Hubbell is the granddaddy of all lawyer directories and ratings. For most of the past 140 years, it held a virtual monopoly. Paying for a listing in the publication was a near-must for practicing lawyers. Reaching AV rating status was considered the ultimate achievement. And then along came the competition, spurred on by entrepreneurs that recognized the gold mine. Martindale has attempted to rise to the challenge by creating sites like Lawyers.com and tie-ins with social networking sites. Will the strategy work? Who knows.
Another long-timer in the industry is Best Lawyers, the once-venerable mainstay of plaques and peer-review profiles, which similarly finds itself being hit by the growing competition for dollars.
Some of the stiffest competition comes in the form of Chambers USA, a U.K.-based directory service that launched in the United States in 2002 and has clearly caught the attention of the largest law firms with a mix of rankings and commentary. Martindale recently announced that it would carry Chambers USA ratings as well. A perusal of most large firm Web sites will highlight good Chambers numbers. There are still opportunities to purchase product—reprints, firm profiles, expanded bios and the like—and the publication did move from a numerical ranking of categories to “bands,” which are tiers that effectively allow a bunch of firms to claim top rankings. But to date, the focus has rested primarily on editorial content. Yet the question remains: Is their methodology truly any better or worse than competitors?
And then there is Lawdragon, which issues no less than a half-dozen “leading lawyers” lists, ranging from lawyers in general to deal makers, plaintiffs’ attorneys, litigators and rising stars. Recently they created lists of legal onsultants, too—a cynic would suggest that this is a way to help ingratiate Lawdragon with the very people being asked to evaluate its listings. After all, if the consultant is on a list, he or she will likely suggest it has some credibility.
However, it is the annual Super Lawyers list that seems to get the brunt of criticism in law firm circles. Perhaps the reason is that it seems rather problematic when there are 5,000 “super lawyers” in one state. That begs the question: Just how super are you?
We also have Avvo—short for avvocato, lawyer in Italian—which is one of the newcomers to the ratings scene. The site sparked immediate controversy in the profession. First, by obtaining bar records, attorney profiles often included disciplinary history (not the sort of thing any previously disciplined attorney wants published online). Second, attorneys did not like seeing themselves ranked without knowing the exact criteria. A Seattle lawyer unsuccessfully sued in Brown v. Avvo, with the court ruling that freedom of information trumped his claims. In the months that followed, a number of states that had resisted releasing their lawyer data to Avvo did so.
Perhaps the greatest concern for many lawyers is that Avvo publishes client ratings of them online. Interestingly, to date, roughly 80 percent of the client reviews are positive. Avvo also encourages lawyers to add greater detail to their profiles, which provides a chance to offset any negatives and thus increase your overall rating. However, one could argue that a key element in legitimizing the ranking and rating components of Avvo is simply the fact that there is nothing for an attorney to buy from them.
Applying the Yardstick
Comprehending the ethics issues in all of this is a struggle for law firms. For all the effort that states have put into the rules of professional responsibility since Bates v. Arizona in 1972, the ratings game has often provided a difficult litmus test to the “deceptive and misleading” yardstick of how these accolades are promoted to current and prospective clients. In recent years, New York and New Jersey are among a few states that tried to put a stranglehold on some of these ratings— but without success. Make no mistake. This is big business, and a number of the companies staking out space in the industry have retained significant legal representation to fight the state bars.
Ultimately, if you forget about the stated methodology and marketing spin, the real questions become: Is the profession hurt any more or less by this type of promotion? Is it fair to assume that clients cannot adequately differentiate between one accolade and another? Is the argument really over levels of subjectivity? Lastly, how do you confront a major underlying notion that all of this is selling to lawyers’ egos? It is unlikely any court or state bar can accomplish that.
About the Author
Micah Buchdahl is President of HTMLawyers, a law marketing consultancy dedicated to guiding law firms through business development strategies and implementation. The Pennsylvania-licensed attorney is Chair-Elect of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.
Navigating the Legal Directory Waters: A Forum on Methodologies, Rankings and Reviews will be a featured program during the upcoming ABA Law Firm Marketing Strategies Conference, November 12-13, 2009, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. For more information on the conference, visit www.lawpractice.org/marketingconference.