Corner Office

The Ratings Game


Two years ago, Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, an entrepreneurial firm known to sharpen the cutting edge, decided to pay a lawyer ratings company for extra bells and whistles.

The firm spent $100 each to have 64 lawyers promoted beyond a basic, free listing to include links to online biographies from the ratings Web site.

After a year, the firm checked to see how it had done. Of the 64 bios, seven had been accessed, once each. “That’s close to a thousand dollars a click,” says Press Millen, chair of the Raleigh, N.C., firm’s client development committee. “This was not a cheesy, fly-by-night outfit. But I thought that much per click was a bit pricey.”

The gold standard is Martindale-Hubbell’s ratings, which started in 1887-88. The next splash came 96 years later, with the launch of The Best Lawyers in America in 1983. Then came Super Lawyers in the early 1990s, starting in Minnesota but beginning its rollout to other states in 2003. That same year, Chambers and Partners, the British ratings concern, launched Chambers USA. More recently, Lawdragon, started by a prominent legal affairs journalist who hired other ink-stained wretches to apply their skills, joined the ratings game.

There are more players to be found—and likely more to come.

COTTAGE INDUSTRY

A subindustry with coaching and seminars has developed to help lawyers and firms trying to get a leg up on the competition in these ratings games.

“I’ve heard the laments of lawyers who don’t cooperate or don’t make a try at the ratings and end up being asked questions by clients who think they should be on the lists,” says Bob Weiss, president and CEO of Alyn-Weiss & Associates, a Denver-based firm handling public relations and marketing for lawyers.

“The lawyers get angry when they find they’re not on there,” Weiss says, “and when you ask, they’ll say they weren’t paying attention.”

Weiss helps some of them get rated. “It’s not that hard, for example, to get nominated for The Best Lawyers in America,” he says. “I can help them get on the lists if they deserve to be there.”

Weiss tells his clients when nominations and balloting are imminent. “The key is that we won’t try to get all 20 partners nominated,” he says. “We ask the firms to tell us who really should be in this.”

Some of the ratings systems have particular appeal for plaintiffs lawyers. “Consumers of legal services can be impressed by this kind of recognition,” says Dale K. Perdue, a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer and former president of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers.

“There is some merit to most of them,” Perdue says. “They’re a reflection of your peers’ views, even if in some ways a popularity contest.”

Not that some lawyers and firms don’t try to work the system. Ratings company methodologies vary. Those who use balloting systems for peer review tinker with ways to keep things honest, such as discounting votes by lawyers for people in their firms.

The Denver Business Journal suspected some were fudging in its first three annual lawyer ratings and, considering other factors as well, decided to put the effort on hold.

“We have no proof of this, and we dropped it for several reasons,” says editor Neil Westergaard. “But I think some of the larger firms in effect managed their votes, not in a corrupt way but gaming the system a little bit.”

ADVERTISING ISSUES

Lawyer ratings came under criticism recently from the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Committee on Attorney Advertising, as well as from the New York court system’s proposed amendments to the Rules Governing Lawyer Advertising.

In New Jersey, the committee said in Opinion 39, issued last July, that attorneys should not buy ads touting their ratings in surveys done by The Best Lawyers in America and Super Lawyers.

The opinion, which concentrates more on Super Lawyers, takes issue with its ratings because they are “designed for mass consumption” and can create an unjustified expectation of results for potential clients. They target consumers directly with, in effect, comparisons of lawyers sometimes done in a faux journalistic style that can be misleading, the committee says.

Lawyers who receive free peer-review listings in Super Lawyers, for example, can pay for expanded advertisements based on them. A full-page profile of a lawyer or firm costs $10,495 in the annual Texas Super Lawyers magazine and $5,650 in smaller-market Indiana. These ads can be made to look and read like newsmagazine feature stories.

In New York, the proposed amendments are somewhat similar to New Jersey’s Opinion 39 and would prohibit any “nickname, moniker, motto or trade name that implies an ability to obtain results.”

The two ratings companies hired their own “super” and “best” lawyers in New Jersey and are fighting Opinion 39.

The fight over lawyer ratings is becoming a bit of a free-for-all. The Federal Trade Commission, which in recent years has expressed a growing interest in competition in law practice, recently sent a letter to Michael Colodner—counsel to the New York Office of Court Administration—offering a lengthy critique of the proposals.

The letter opposes much of the proposed amendments and states that the FTC does not like “overly broad” restrictions. “While deceptive advertising by lawyers should be prohibited, restrictions on advertising and solicitation should be specifically tailored to prevent deceptive claims and should not unnecessarily restrict the dissemination of truthful and nonmisleading information,” the letter says.

Overly broad restrictions are also a concern of the American Civil Liberties Union. It filed comments along with two other groups contending that the New York proposals violate the First Amendment. There is nothing inherently misleading about advertising techniques that use nicknames or monikers, the comments contend. “A consumer seeing a law firm advertised as ‘heavy hitters’ or ‘super lawyers’ would not believe that the lawyers would automatically be superior to other lawyers, much less that the lawyers actually possess superhuman powers.”

WHO’S LOOKING

Some of the ratings systems are geared more toward grabbing the eyes of in-house counsel looking for outside help; some go for a mix of consumer and lawyer-to-lawyer attention-getting; others simply help good lawyers know about other good lawyers. Some are evolving and may add to or change the recipe in different ways.

“We target the legal professional market, but eventually we’ll probably expand for a broader consumer appeal,” says Katrina Dewey, CEO of the Los Angeles- based Lawdragon. She is the former editor of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal affairs newspaper.

Dewey hired several former journalists to create a mix of news and profiles in a slick quarterly magazine and on a Web site, both built around its lawyer ratings. Lawdragon’s methodology, which she says is proprietary, uses her employees’ journalistic skills in finding who belongs on its lists of the top 500 and top 3,000 lawyers in the country.

“We’ve caused consternation and unhappiness among the law firm marketing people,” she says, “because we’re not relying on them to tell us who’s best in their firms.”

The Association of Corporate Counsel found that in-house lawyers look to these directories—online or in print—about 18 percent of the time in hiring lawyers. That percentage remained virtually constant from 2001 through 2005 in the annual ACC/Serengeti Managing Outside Counsel Survey and thus was not tracked in the 2006 version.

Many in the survey have approved counsel lists and also have their own internal referrals. But 79.7 percent replied that they look to their current outside counsel for referrals. And much of the lawyer rating business is aimed at getting notice from other lawyers.

Thus the lawyer ratings companies distribute their materials widely. Super Lawyers, for example, sends copies of its annual state magazines to every lawyer and judge in the state, as well as to the Russell 3,000 list of the biggest publicly traded companies.

The magazines, plaques and other marks of the remarkable might end up in the mail to clients, on reception area tables or on office walls. But they’re not likely to end anytime soon.

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