What is a legal directory?
The term “directory” can be mis-leading, implying simply a Yellow Pages-style listing.
Although there are numerous straightforward listing products catering for lawyers and law firms – some of which are useful and effective – the “directory” label has come to represent a broader and more diverse range of products.
Despite it being an inadequate description for the myriad of listings, surveys, rankings, league tables, awards and more, the term has stuck and is now used as an umbrella term for a range of products and services that research, list, analyse, promote, advertise, measure and comment on lawyers and law firms.
Some of the research-led directories have in the past tried to substitute the term directory for “guidebook” – a more accurate description.
If you were going on vacation, and wanted to buy a book telling you more about your destination (like a Frommers, Lonely Planet etc..) you wouldn’t say “I’m going to buy a travel directory”.
You would say, “I’m going to buy a travel guide or a travel guidebook”. Some directories perform a similar function to a guidebook, yet they are called directories, and described collectively alongside products which more closely resemble actual directories.
The term “directory” has remained the one in common usage.
Although this is semantics, it’s relevant because the broad definition of the word directory within the legal sector means that different people understand the term in different ways.
Let’s look at some of different products commonly labeled as legal directories.
What most people would understand by a traditional business directory is a listing of a range of suppliers of that product or service, often with a form of categorization by, say, location or speciality.
The best known directory of this type in the legal sector is Martindale-Hubbell. Formed by James Martindale in New Jersey in 1868, it later linked up with Hubbell’s Legal Directory, and the first edition of the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory was published in 1931.
Elsewhere, the yellow pages was a traditionally destination for smaller law firms and solo practitioners.
There are many other speciality online and print directories which provide contact information for lawyers and some degree of categorization.
Things started to change in the legal directory world in the 1980s, when the concept of validation took off.
As a lawyer, or a law firm, no longer were you simply listed in a directory, but you were formally recommended and endorsed by an organization using a particular type of research menthodology.
In the U.S, the key mover was Best Lawyers. Formed by two Harvard graduates, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Best Lawyers pioneered the concept of “peer review” for lawyers.
Lawyers would only get labeled a “Best Lawyer” and listed in the directory if they received a sufficient number of recommendations from other lawyers in private practice.
Other businesses followed their lead, and by the 1990s, the likes of SuperLawyers, Who’s Who Legal (from the UK-based Law Business Research), Expert Guides (Euromoney), and many others, produced similar products.
At the same time, in the U.K, another style of directory was developed by two legal publishing entrepreneurs, Michael Chambers and John Pritchard.
Law firms were asked to prepare written submissions highlighting their achievements over the last year.
Teams of researchers would supplement the written material with interviews with selected lawyers and clients.
Once the research was finalized, these directories published tiered rankings of firms and lawyers in different practice areas.
It was novel idea in the 1980s and 1990s: before the internet, when information about law firms was scarce, and when law firms were far more private about their dealings.
As traditional print directories were replaced by internet-based sites, Google became the primary way by which people access information.
For consumer-focused lawyers, securing high visibility on Google is paramount and an industry of experts in page ranking and search engine optimization has sprung up to help lawyers achieve online prominence.
More broadly, surveys show that a large percentage of buyers of legal services now search for information about lawyers online.
When they do go online, Google is often their first port of call, and that will lead them to law firms’ own websites, legal directories, blogs, news articles, and other sources of information about lawyers.
It is clear, therefore, that lawyers need to manage and maintain a strong and credible online presence.
League tables can be broadly described as those products which measure law firm deal activity through factual data rather than more subjective methodologies.
Many league tables originated in the 1990s as demand rose for more sophisticated and transparent deal reporting.
In many deal-focused firms, league table performance is just as – if not more important – than how they fare in directories.
As well as areas which lend themselves easily to deal reporting – M&A, finance, capital markets, project finance – league table-style surveys are prevalent in other practice areas where quantitative data can be collected, measured and assessed.
For example, there are surveys which list those law firms handling the most patent prosecutions filed at the patent office.
There are numerous annual or one-off surveys conducted by the legal and business press.
Whether it’s the annual American Lawyer survey of law firm finances, or IFLR’s Middle East Deal of The Year, or the annual Asian Legal Business IP Rankings Survey – or the many others.
Surveys are often labeled as directories since they share many similarities.
Trade & Industry Surveys
Most industry sectors have a healthy trade press. As well as covering news, features, and developments, many will offer an annual survey or supplement akin to a directory.
While the circulations and online hits of such journals and magazines are lower than the more comprehensive, multi-practice, multi-country directories, their focus is seen as a strength.
With dedicated teams of journalists who know their particular field, such surveys and directories can be influential within a certain niche.
Lawyers want to get noticed by the people who work in the industries that they advise on.
There are too many to mention, but whether its private client or healthcare or IP, almost every lawyer I have spoken to over the years about promoting their practice to directories has cited an industry magazine survey as a target.
While awards are distinct from directories to some extent, they perform a similar function and often get lumped together.
Many awards are produced by the same legal and business publishers that run annual directories and surveys, and draw on the same resources.
Social media has – and will continue to have – a profound effect on the legal directory landscape.
It’s relevance to the legal directory world is considerable because social media has changed the way in which information is delivered and consumed, and has shifted expectations.
No longer do we just passively read information, we interact, promote, share and collaborate – whether it’s through Linked-In, Twitter, blogs, blogging platforms, online forums, or Q+A sites.
Some trade and professional associations maintain legal directories.
Notably, the U.S Association of Corporate Counsel developed a “Value Challenge” to highlight those firms providing a high level of value when delivering legal services.
In the last few years, we have seen sites like Avvo blend the concept of a traditional legal directory, with features borrowed from the consumer world like ratings, user-generated content, reviews, and question-and-answer forums.
We are in a new era: one shaped heavily by the effects of technology, social media, globalization, emerging markets, the financial crisis and economic downturn, competition from alternative providers of legal services, and a heightened sensitivity to cost.
What will the legal directories of the future look like?
I’ll be exploring that in more detail in future blog posts, but it’s clear that there will be convergence between the different types of legal directory product described above.
The boundaries are already blurring, and that will continue.