Patricia Gillette’s view will no doubt strike a chord with fellow attorneys and beleaguered marketing staff suffering from rankings fatigue after an exhausting legal directory season.
Although the target of the article is the growing number of surveys aimed at diversity, associate satisfaction, and women’s initiatives, the article makes the same broad points that have been heard since the early 1990s when the legal publishing industry poured its energies into creating the modern-day explosion of lists, rankings, and directories.
The narrative is familiar: there’s too many of them, we can’t cope – “I just wish they would all go away!” (as a Magic Circle marketing director said to me recently)
Having worked with many law firms to help manage their relationships with external legal publishers and information providers, I have some sympathy with the weary marketers and lawyers who are continually asked to provide tailored materials.
And Ms. Gilette makes some valid points about how law firms use creative reporting techniques to manipulate and game the system.
But let’s put this into perspective.
Whenever I read articles like this, there’s often the hint that coercion or pressure is applied to law firms to participate in such surveys.
The tone is always: long-suffering law firm desperately tries to stay above water while being circled by predatory legal publishers.
Let’s be clear here: law firms do this stuff voluntarily and willingly.
Of course, there are sharp practices out there, and I regularly see pushy emails from legal publishing salespeople, which are the equivalent of the mugger sticking their hand in your pocket on La Rambla.
But we’re talking about clever lawyers here, not vulnerable old grannies at the mercy of bogus tradesmen.
No one forces any law firm to complete any survey, prepare any submission, enter any award, or pay for anything.
They do it because they want to – because they see some value in it, or believe that the accolade at the end of it justifies the time and/or money involved in participating.
Or they do it because they daren’t break from the pack of other law firms.
Law firms have more power than they think.
One of the reasons that Martindale Hubbell – the king of the legal directories from the nineteenth century until the 2000s – has morphed into a different type of product recently is because many law firms, particularly larger ones, stopped paying the kind of advertising rates that Martindale demanded.
It’s law firm dollars that provide the revenue for the industry, and it’s law firms that take profiles, advertisements, plaques, table reservations, and sponsorships.
Law firms don’t have to do these things. I’m not saying they shouldn’t. On the contrary, some of these products and services are far better value than the myriad of other things that law firms spend waste money on.
I was once at a dinner where four law firm partners spent $2,000, which I can tell you was quite a shock for a guy who is content with a $6 burrito.
But then firms complain at the same time.
This “we can’t do with them, we can’t do without them” tension is neatly illustrated by our lawyer above, who, despite her criticisms, has a section of her bio devoted to honors and accolades, and touts 10 different achievements.
Law firms need to be tougher with publishers and organizations that adopt an overly rigid approach to survey and data collection.
The problem is acute in the United States, with its precision-obsessed legal and journalistic culture, where survey providers are onerous in their requirements, and law firms fear that if they don’t provide the information in exactly the required format, they will be penalized.
Firms should stand up and say “this is the information we have – take it or leave it” and not feel that they have to spend man-hours burying into every nook and cranny of the firm to produce a bespoke response just to fit one of many organizations seeking similar information.
Sensible legal publishing and research organizations get this and recognize that there has to be flexibility and a mutual understanding of what is realistic and practical
Law firms also need to recognize that – if they want to engage with legal directories, surveys, and the like – there is a cost of doing business.
These products aren’t going to disappear, even if you may want them to.
Once law firms accept that, then they can find a way of managing the workload, and they can put efficiencies in place. They can hire dedicated staff, use external consultants and agencies, or invest in better processes and technologies – or a combination of these things.
It’s no different to how law firms’ own clients see lawyers – as a “necessary evil”. Something that they would rather not pay for, but have little choice.
The other area I want to pick up on is this idea that there has been a market failure in the legal directory industry.
The proliferation of lists, surveys, and rankings concludes some to think that an alternative to the private sector should step in to provide a neutral assessment of the law firm market.
I hear this view expressed surprisingly often.
In other words, let’s take this business away from greedy, commercial organizations who are motivated only by the opportunity to develop another revenue stream and hand it over to an independent non-profit body.
I’m sure it was partly this motivation that inspired the ACC to launch its value index initiative a few years ago – to bring the ranking of law firms under the umbrella of a professional trade association rather than a profit-making company.
There are already numerous trade associations, professional bodies, non-profits and suchlike within the legal sector that offer their own lists, surveys, and awards, and they do a perfectly fine job.
But let’s not kid ourselves that a non-profit organization could ever develop a product to rival the best of the private sector, particularly in this technology-fueled market. They simply wouldn’t have the drive, motivation, or skill to do it.
A lawyer said to me recently that, due to the unique ethics of the profession, an independent body should be responsible for legal rankings.
When I pushed him as to what he meant by “an independent body,” he suggested either an “approved group of law firms”, or a government body.
Can you imagine: a group of law firms gets together to rank themselves? I’m sure consumers and businesses would love that.
As for government. The same governments that have such a great track record of IT projects – whether it be the US healthcare website fiasco, or the countless failed multi-billion schemes in the UK.
If “reform” and consolidation is needed in the legal list industry, it will come from the market. It will come from law firms being more assertive, it will come from buyers of legal services who read and favor certain products over others, and it will come from creative businesspeople and publishers – both in startup businesses and established companies – who will successfully develop the next generation of products and services.