A couple of recent legal media articles turned the spotlight on to every legal marketer’s favorite subject: directories.
It surprises me that some dismiss directories as a “waste of time”.
Directories are far from perfect – the research can be frustratingly inconsistent and submission preparation remains a painful process for many firms – but in the 25 years since the likes of Legal 500, Best Lawyers and Chambers first appeared on the scene, surely no-one still feels – in principle – they have no value whatsoever?
Criticism of directories has calmed down in the last 5-10 years as the legal sector has modernized.
In the 90s there was an attempt by a group of UK-based law firms to collectively pull out of the directories process.
But law firms have learned to live with directories. They are here to stay.
Too often the discussion surrounding directories centers, from a law firm perspective, on whether directories are useful for clients.
The arguments get re-ignited every so often, usually triggered by a consultancy report in which clients identify the main criteria by which they identify their legal advisors.
Typically the results show that legal directories are less influential than other factors such as personal relationships.
To critics this is proof that directories are irrelevant to sophisticated clients and law firms should instead spend their time on more “productive” marketing initiatives.
Of course, large clients do use directories, but clearly they attach most weight to their existing professional networks.
There would be something seriously wrong if the general counsel of a major company didn’t have a bulging contacts book of lawyers from law school, private practice, in-house, and referrals from other advisors.
But what about the millions of smaller businesses, organizations and individuals without any knowledge of the legal market at all.
These folks don’t know where to start looking for a lawyer, and need all the help they can get.
The directories haven’t always helped convince the skeptics.
For commercial reasons, they have traditionally marketed themselves as a product for the upper end of the legal market but clients using premium firms are less likely to use directories as a primary selection tool.
On the other hand, the consumer and High Street markets remain under-served (although this is changing) even though it’s these clients that benefit most from legal search products.
If directories stopped banging the “we’re just for clients” drum quite so loudly and marketed themselves more broadly as a vital information resource for a range of audiences – law firms, consumers, law schools, students, librarians, recruiters, research organizations, consultants, journalists – some of the criticisms might fade away.
Putting aside the question of how valuable directories are for clients, fundamentally, legal directories satisfy a basic human need for information.
They shine light in areas of darkness, and provide transparency in a world that has long been opaque.
Crucially, they provide comparisons of law firms in a market, which, despite consolidation and globalization, remains highly fragmented.
For most legal matters, there are hundreds of firms with the capability to do a given piece of work.
Any tool that helps a buyer slim down that list has to be valuable.
At a legal awards bash some years ago, I had a drink with a senior partner at a leading Chicago-based law firm.
He said to me: “people complain about directories but if they didn’t exist, we’d all be saying ‘what the market really needs is a legal directory’”