The US directory season is here.
While some of the dates may change, firms should make a start based on the information that has been released.
For US law firm marketers, the annual legal directory and submission cycle is long and arduous.
But there are many things law firm marketers can do – and should do – to make the directory and submission process smoother, more efficient, and effective.
Here are some suggestions to lessen the pain.
BEFORE YOU START
Check The Schedule
Chambers & Partners released the first part of the Chambers USA 2014-15 research schedule on April 19 2014.
A number of states and national sections have an “earlybird” deadline of June 9 2014.
The schedule will likely update, with new sections added, and other dates pushed back.
If you have responsibility for any submissions in your firm, check the website every day or two to see if new information has been published.
If you are on the Chambers database, you may receive e-mail notifications, but this doesn’t always happen, so proactively do a manual check.
Add Yourself to The Directory Database
Directories’ databases date quickly, since legal marketers switch firms regularly and directories responsibility is passed from person to person.
Make sure you are listed on the legal directory publishers’ databases as the external contact for your law firm.
Then you will receive notifications from the directories about schedule changes, launch dates, deadlines, and other important updates.
Speak to the editorial assistant or one of the staff responsible for maintaining the database, and tell them that you are the point person for your firm.
You may also want to contact the relevant researchers (the ones assigned to your sections – as many as have been announced at this point) at the start of the research process, and tell them that you are the firm’s directory liaison.
As well as Chambers & Partners, inform Legal 500, and any of the other directories you work with.
Make Yourself Aware of The Research Season Dates
The first batch of Chambers USA submissions are due June 9 2014, and the last ones November 3 2014.
As for the research itself – this is conducted between July and December 2013.
Deadlines usually fall at the beginning of each month.
Depending on your firm and where its offices are located, you may be busier at the start of the cycle or the end.
Directories like Chambers USA and Legal 500 USA follow an annual cycle, with a significant spike of activity during the main directory and submission season.
The seven-month period from May through November represents a considerable burden for law firms – particularly law firm marketing departments.
It is important to make provision for the increased workload during the peak months.
There are a number of ways to do this:
- Assign existing members of the in-house marketing team to directories duty
- Bring in temporary staff to help in the peak directory months
- Hire a dedicated directories manager or coordinator
- Engage the services of a directories consultant or agency to help with some of the work
There are pros and cons to each of these methods, and most firms, particularly larger ones, employ a combination of these approaches.
Clearly Assign Directories Responsibility
If you manage the directories in-house using your existing marketing team, it is vital to assign directories responsibility to members of the team.
Most law firm marketing, business development, and media relations staff have “day jobs”, and it’s difficult for them to juggle the competing demands on their time in the middle of directory season.
A common occurrence – I see this happen regularly – is the law firm marketing or business development executive that misses an important submission deadline.
Typically they were busy with other things, weren’t on top of the directory deadlines, or it wasn’t communicated to them by other members of the marketing team that they were responsible for hitting a deadline.
Confusion and blame easily take hold in these situations, so law firms should get organized ahead of time and map out clear instructions to their teams.
Assign a Marketing Person to Each Submission
Directories management is all about organization.
Preventing things falling through the cracks.
So assign a marketing/BD person to every submission.
The assigned marketing person has to take ownership and responsibility for that submission.
It’s best to have a single marketing person as the main “owner” of each submission, even if that submission cuts across internal practice groups.
I often receive frantic last-minute calls from marketers who have just discovered that their submission is due tomorrow – or last week.
In most cases, they forgot about it, didn’t know they were responsible, or weren’t told by someone else in the firm.
A senior person, like a marketing director or CMO, should communicate to their team exactly which marketer is responsible for finalizing each submission.
Nominate a Firm-Wide Directories Coordinator
I’ve worked with law firms of all shapes and sizes, and no two firms handle legal directories exactly the same way.
There are numerous ways to organize a law firm directories program, and there’s no definitive “right” way of handling things.
But a strong recommendation is to nominate an overall directories coordinator as well as assigning a single marketing person to “own” each submission.
That person will usually be someone in a central function with firm-wide responsibility, rather than embedded within a particular practice area group.
Alternatively, in smaller firms it could be someone with another administrative title such as an office manager or departmental manager.
Or it could be an external consultant or account manager at a small agency.
Whoever it is, that person’s job is to remind everyone of deadlines, and ensure that the process is managed smoothly.
The directories coordinator doesn’t have to do all the legwork, but they do need to take the lead on the overall project management.
Assign an Approving Partner to Each Submission
One of the reasons submissions take longer than they should, and deadlines get missed, is because marketers expand the circle of partners involved.
Naturally, there is a desire to “cover” yourself and the culture of consensus in law firms encourages such an approach.
But you have to keep the circle tight, or the submission will drag on.
Assign a single partner to each submission (at most, two)
He or she has final sign-off responsibility.
Sure, other partners will need to get involved, but they only need to provide material for certain parts of the submission – like their matters, or clients.
Don’t fire out full submission drafts to multiple partners.
Partners will often over-write each other’s drafts, and you get sucked into unnecessary partner politics and delays.
Death By Committee
The desire to secure a ranking in prominent directories like Chambers USA has become so great that some firms have formalized internal committees in which groups of partners decide which attorneys are to be nominated for inclusion in each submission.
This is before the submission has even been written.
Law firms love committees but they can derail submissions and lead to delays – not to mention frustration.
Law firm marketers’ natural inclination is to be as inclusive as possible – a marketing director friend told me recently “my job is to keep the partners happy and that’s more important to me than hitting a submission deadline” – but there is a balance to be struck or else the process will overwhelm you.
Each firm is different, but in general, I would advise against a committee-led approach.
It may not be the most transparent or inclusive way, but it’s usually more effective if a marketer works with a small group of key partners in a given practice to drive the submission forward and secure timely approval.
Use discretion and judgment.
What Happens if we Don’t Organize Ourselves Properly?
Most legal directories-related problems that arise in law firms are the result of disorganization, and lack of communication between members of the marketing team.
The inevitable happens: deadlines get missed, you fall behind at the start of the cycle and never catch up.
It sounds crazy but I’ve seen a lot of good marketing people sidelined – some even fired – because they forgot to complete a submission on time.
Legal directories management is often frustrating, and even the best-oiled team will hit a bump in the road – but the vast majority of problems can be prevented with some foresight and planning.
Prepare a Master Organizational Table
Using Word or Excel, prepare a directories organization chart as early as possible.
Draw up a list of all the sections in every state (and nationally) where your firm has an office.
Your table should include – for each section:
- The name of the state (or national)
- The practice/industry section (what the directories call it, not your firm)
- The submission deadline
- Whether you submitted for that section last year – yes/no
- Whether your firm was ranked in that section– yes/no
- The lead partner(s) for the section
- The responsible member of the marketing team
- A space to include progress notes and other comments
Identify Your Firms’ Areas For Submission
Before diving into submission preparation, establish a definitive list of sections to which you will submit.
In most cases, you will re-submit for those areas where your firm was previously recommended, and those areas where you submitted previously.
But you may wish to submit in new sections as well.
Did you make key lateral hires, open a new office, or expand a particular practice?
Are there practices that have been earmarked for expansion?
For any “possibles” (i.e. – sections where you think you may want to submit, but aren’t sure), discuss internally and talk to a senior partner or section head ahead of time and get a firm yes/no.
You want to avoid a situation in which a partner calls in November – at the end of the season – wondering why we didn’t do a submission for his practice back in July.
Watch For New Sections
New sections are added to the directory schedules each year.
Keep an eye out for them, and, if it’s relevant to your firm, decide whether to submit or not.
New sections will usually be flagged up in email communications from the directories, but if you don’t receive these emails, the best thing to do is a manual check on the online research schedule.
To do this, match up the sections covered in the states where your firm has an office with your internal organization chart.
This is the best way of ensuring that you catch every new section or subsection, and that nothing slips through the cracks.
Check The Latest Edition of The Directories
The latest edition of Chambers USA is released on May 23 2014 – before the first set of deadlines for the next directory.
The guidebooks are first made available at the Chambers USA Awards in New York on May 22 2014, and then distributed the following day.
At the same time, the updated content goes live on the Chambers website.
If you have responsibility for directories in your firm, it’s important to check the new edition as soon as it is released.
As well as preparing an internal analysis of the results and communicating those to attorneys and staff, it helps you plan ahead for the next season.
Your firm may have secured new lawyer and firm rankings, and that will influence your approach to the next round of submissions – for example, which lawyers to include, and what to write in the feedback section.
Remember to update your master organization chart with details of which sections have been ranked and not ranked, as this will shape your decision as to what to submit for in the coming year.
I cover submission preparation in more detail in other advisories, but there are some key things to take on board at the start of the process:
Don’t Begin By Firing Out Emails Asking For Matters
Most legal marketers see the submission process essentially as a matter-gathering exercise.
In other words:
“The attorneys know what matters are significant, and we don’t, so we have to ask them by requesting information.”
“There’s no internal records of the matters – we have to ask them”
This approach turns the whole process into a time-consuming back-and-forth in an attempt to gather extensive matter detail.
Change your approach.
If you are a marketing manager in a particular practice, take four pages of blank letter-sized paper.
Imagine that the person to whom you’re sending the four pages knows nothing about your firm’s practice.
Your job is to get over the key features, strengths, and characteristics of that practice – with matter description to support your points – so that if they skim-read those four pages in five minutes they have a pretty good understanding of what you do.
Use your own knowledge of the practice, existing material from press releases and pitches, anything held on an internal matter database, and an initial call or meeting with a lead partner in the group.
It’s amazing how much you can get down on paper if you approach submissions with this mindset.
Lawyers find it much easier to add in a few specific details to a submission that already has a structure and a theme.
The other problem with requesting matters up front from the attorneys – before you have even drafted anything – is that it is inefficient: you are hitting the attorneys twice rather than just once.
You are first asking them to supply matters, then preparing the submission, then going back to them and asking them to approve the submission.
It’s much quicker and more effective to have them review and approve the document once.
Start by Talking to Practice Group Heads
Rather than trying to gather input from 20 partners, all of whom want to push the work they’ve been doing, arrange a meeting or call with the head of the practice.
Your aim is to get the download on that practice. Think like a journalist.
- What have been the key developments in the last 12 months?
- What are the key messages we want to convey to the directories?
- What are the group’s top deals or cases?
- Who should we push for recommendation this year?
- Have market developments had an effect on the practice over the last year?
Marketers: Do as Much as You Can First
Along with your own knowledge and readily available internal information, a good initial partner meeting/call should enable a drafter to put together 70-80% of most submissions.
It’s amazing how much you can cover in a 30-45 minute meeting.
As well as giving you a great head start on drafting the submission, it makes the sign-off process much smoother as you’ve already had a chance to discuss everything with the partner who will ultimately provide final sign-off.
Minimize Attorney Workload
Give the lawyers as little work to do as possible.
Attorneys would much rather be presented with a semi-complete document which they can review than a blank grid and instructions from a marketer to “fill that in”.
If you do this, lawyers will just push the submission to the bottom of the list of priorities, and it will take longer to sign off.
Attorneys are trained to mark up written documents, and who likes filling in blank forms?
Marketers – Have Confidence to Draft Submissions
Law firm marketers should try to draft the bulk of the submissions themselves.
It enhances your role, and the role played by the marketing team.
Most marketers think of submission preparation as simply an administrative exercise.
Of course, there are aspects of the process that are routine and formulaic.
But the art of submission preparation is to tell a short story – not fill in a bunch of empty boxes on a form.
Assume that the person reading the submission knows nothing about your firm’s practice.
Your job is to convey what the practice is about in a concise, persuasive, and attractive fashion.
Marketers should relish this challenge.
And the attorneys will appreciate it.
Don’t Over Communicate
Law firms are consensus-driven places, but over-communication can be damaging when managing legal directories.
To avoid delays and missed deadlines, keep the circle of communication tight and don’t send mass emails with draft submissions to multiple partners.
Attorneys will all have an individual view, which may or may not be the same as the head of the practice – the person with the ultimate say over what is submitted.
One of the tasks of the lead partner (usually the practice or section head) is to provide final approval for the submission, and it’s not possible to circulate the draft around every partner in the team who may have a view.
Sure, individual partners can approve their own deal descriptions but the overall document containing the full narrative only needs to be seen by one or two senior partners otherwise it won’t get finalized.
Or it will be stripped of any color and personality.
Adapt Your Submissions Efficiently
Submission production is a laborious and time-consuming process for most law firms, so be as efficient as possible and get as much “bang for your buck” by re-using as much of the written material as you can for other directories and publications.
This might sound like stating the obvious, but law firms spend too much time converting existing submissions for other directories.
Some firms are so exhausted at the end of the Chambers season that they don’t bother submitting for Legal 500, even though most of the material has just been prepared and approved.
Sure, there are some minor format differences, and it’s good practice to supply the directories with material in a tailored fashion, and in the requested format.
However, too many law firms over-complicate this part of the process, with the extra burden that brings.
Spend your Legal 500 submission preparation time on those sections that are unique to Legal 500, or else are significantly different to the nearest Chambers equivalent.
In such cases, you may need to start afresh.
But most Legal 500 submissions can be easily adapted from existing approved material without sucking in partners again and having every document re-reviewed.
Make life easy for yourself.
Why Deadlines Are Important
Most law firms are consistently late with their submissions.
As many as 70 percent in some sections.
A deadline is there for a reason: it enables you to plan ahead, and work back from that point – to make sure you get your materials submitted in time.
Once the submission has gone in on time, you can knock it off your “to do” list and relax knowing it’s done and dusted, and not hanging over you anymore.
From the directory publishers’ point of view, they need to get the submissions in on time so they can prepare and organize large amounts of material ahead of the research getting underway.
Directories are fed up with late submissions, and have toughened up their approach recently.
But I’m Waiting For Such And Such…
There’s always a reason to wait just one more day.
Remember – directory submission are not supposed to be definitive.
There is always potentially something else to add just around the corner (like that big deal the attorney says is closing next week, after the deadline) – but submissions are a snapshot of a point in time.
You can send important updates later on, either as a supplement or as a revised version.
Be Tough With The Attorneys
A feature of directories management in all law firms is the exhausted marketer relentlessly chasing the busy attorney to sign off on the submission.
Directory submissions are not top of attorneys’ priority list, but you have to push them otherwise the deadline comes and goes.
Start on your submission four-six weeks before it is due.
The first attorney reminder should be 7-10 days before the deadline; the second in the days leading up to the deadline. (assuming it’s not already been completed)
If you have had no response by now, the third reminder – no later than the day before the deadline – should be final, and presented not so much as a reminder but as “this is going to happen – the submission is going off tomorrow”
If you present it as a “fait accompli”, the attorney understands that the submission is going off regardless of whether they contribute or not.
This often has the desired effect of getting them to provide final approval.
If they don’t get back to you, edit out anything sensitive or waiting for clarification and then submit.
You can always follow up later with an updated version if there are particular gaps, but at least you have got it off on time, and the directories will be pleased.
Choose your words carefully in your final email: you should be polite, but firm.
Remember, it is in the best interests of the firm to submit on time.
A delayed submission does not help the partner, the practice or the firm – or you as a marketer.
The Importance of Getting Client Contacts in on Time
Aim to get every submission in on time.
But if you are really struggling, then prioritize the client contacts.
Late client references can – and do – materially affect your performance.
But The Deadlines Are Fake, Right?
Chambers often asks firms to submit one month ahead of research (for example, research may begin in July for submissions due in June).
Similarly, Legal 500’s published deadlines are sometimes several weeks before they actually start doing the research.
But put yourself in the directories’ shoes for a minute.
They receive huge volumes of law firm submissions, and need to organize and prepare that material before research gets underway.
The breathing room is to ensure that all of the information is entered onto their systems ahead of the start of research.
Which submissions do you think they will prioritize and look at first: those that were submitted on time, or those that dribbled in days and weeks (sometimes months) after the official deadline has passed?
This is particularly important with regards to client references – the directories want them on time so they can begin their calls.
Don’t Ask For Extensions
Repeated extension requests are the bane of directory researchers’ lives, so aim to get something to the directory on or ideally before the deadline date.
You can always send in an update at a later date.
By submitting on time, it shows you are serious and interested, and the directories are therefore more likely to be receptive.
By contrast, it doesn’t look good if your submission is late, with a series of extension requests.
The directories won’t penalize you formally – although they have hardened their stance recently – but it creates the impression that you are disorganized, and they’re less likely to be accommodating.
Move on from the extension mindset.
I recently spoke to legal marketer three months before a submission deadline. They asked me if I thought it was possible to receive an extension. I told them not to even think about extensions at that stage, but to focus on hitting the deadline.
Deadline extensions should be a last resort, not something to consider at the outset of the process.
But We’re Really Struggling to Make The Deadline
Naturally, there will be situations where you’ve done everything right, but something unexpected crops up to delay your submission.
In this situation, the best thing to do is call the researcher, and find out when they are beginning their actual research.
A call is often better than yet another email from a law firm marketer – of which they get many.
You may get lucky.
The researcher may be running behind and finishing off a previous section, and may not be planning to move on to your section for a few more weeks.
If they are starting straight away, send them what you have – even if it’s not totally as you would want.
It’s better to send something than nothing at all.
At the very least, send them the client contacts on time.