15 types of lawyer who should consider whether legal directories is the right way to market their practice.
Part two – Which Lawyers Should Work With Legal Directories – coming next (sign up to be notified).
Are you impatient?
Then don’t bother with the directories.
You need the patience of a saint as everything takes ages.
It takes time to prepare submissions, gather references, and manage the process.
Then you have to wait a year or two to see whether your firm got listed.
And you might not get listed at all, in which case you have to go through it all again.
I sympathize when lawyers get frustrated with the painfully slow pace of legal directories research.
If you’re the kind of person that wants to get things done, and see results quickly, the research-style directories are not for you.
Other types of directory and marketing effort will give you a quicker hit.
Those that want certainty
Are you the kind person that is comfortable spending time doing something when there’s no guarantee of a particular result?
If not, you won’t like the directories.
There’s no direct correlation between the amount of effort you put into the directories process and the results that you see at end of it.
Of course, there are many things you can do to maximize your chances of a positive ranking and commentary, and remove any reasons the directories may have for not listing you.
But even if you do all the right steps, it doesn’t guarantee anything.
That’s because legal directories pride themselves on the independence of their research, and performance is driven to some extent by factors outside your control.
A lot of people are not prepared to put the time in when there’s no tangible route to success.
Some lawyers are happy to wait it out, but if you need more certainty, the directories are not for you.
Lawyers are by definition sensitive to detail, but that can be a disadvantage when it comes to the legal directories.
A partner called me once and said he had a “light bulb” moment:
“I’ve been doing these submissions for years, and agonizing over every detail, dotting every i, and crossing every t. I’ve realized that extra time is wasted, it just needs to be ‘good enough’”.
Most firms could cut in half the amount of time they spend on submissions without sacrificing the overall quality, and it would have no discernible effect on performance.
Easier said than done, though, as many lawyers (and their marketing staff) take a “completist” approach to submissions, focused on filling in every detail.
A good directory submission is about bringing your practice to life, and that means writing in a more accessible, less technical style.
No Directory Section
To help readers navigate them, legal directories are broken down by a series of countries, regions, and practice areas/industry sectors.
To be considered by a directory for inclusion, you must submit for a particular section that they offer.
It’s not a case of (as I find with some lawyers ) – “I am brilliant, here I am, find a home for me.”
Sometimes there is no directory category that neatly fits your practice.
Either because the directories have not added that section to your country/region, or it is subsumed within a broader section.
Long-term, you can pitch the idea of a new section to the directories.
But in the short to medium term, if you choose to go ahead, you will have to artificially squeeze your practice into the contours of the existing directory categories – which makes it harder to get listed if it’s not a direct fit.
My heart sinks when I hear a lawyer say “I do everything!”.
When I talk to lawyers, I am constantly thinking about ways in which I can position them – angles, hooks, specialisms, industry sectors, niche expertise.
Something to elevate them above every other corporate lawyer and litigator.
True, some clients are drawn to the old-school generalist, the all-rounder who can turn their hand to any type of legal problem.
But unless you’re a highly sought after legal rockstar, it’s hard to make headway in the directories if your practice is too general in nature, and cuts across several different practices.
One caveat: a generalist approach can work in emerging markets and smaller jurisdictions where there is a more limited pool of elite lawyers.
For lawyers in bigger countries, it’s best to pick one area (two possibly) and develop your submissions around that.
Those in popular practices
Generally if you practice in a more specialized area, as long as the directories cover that area, your chances of securing a ranking – all other things equal – will be higher than if you work in a more common area.
That’s because if there are fewer lawyers practicing in your area, less of them will submit to the directories, the competition is less intense, and your chances of being found by the directories is higher.
By a more common area, I mean practices you find in every full-service business law firm – corporate, litigation, real estate, employment.
Of course, lawyers in these areas should still engage with the directories, but the competition is stiffer.
As an added overlay, if you’re in a major business center, with many lawyers, it’s harder to cut through than if you’re in a smaller city.
For example, if you’re a specialist in insurance law in Missouri, it’s probably going to be easier to bring yourself to the attention of Chambers than if you are a real estate lawyer in Chicago – simply because Chambers will receive five or ten times as many submissions in the latter area.
The ranking tables are of course bigger in more populous markets, but are not big enough to accommodate all the lawyers who wish to appear in them.
Specialism is a prized quality in lawyers because it enables you to stand out from the pack, and offer something distinctive to clients.
Legal directories also try to provide value to clients by highlighting lawyers’ particular areas of expertise.
But sometimes your practice can be too narrow, too specialized, which makes it hard to get traction with the directories if their ranking tables do not go that deep.
I come across lawyers all the time with unusual, fascinating practices, where they may be just one of a handful of lawyers (or even the only one) in a city or country doing a particular type of work.
The purpose of a legal directory is to make lawyers with particular specialities known to the potential client who may wish to hire them – a matching service.
But if you are the top attorney in Idaho for municipal finance, or Slovakia’s best defense procurement lawyer, directories may struggle to find a way to reflect your expertise.
Heart’s not in it
Some lawyers say to me: “I’m not interested in directories myself, but I’m doing my bit for the team.”
In other words, they’re not really interested personally but firm management has leant on them, or, in their capacity as a practice head, they feel a responsibility to the rest of the group.
I get that, but one thing I have never tried to do during my time in legal marketing is try to persuade skeptical lawyers who aren’t enthusiastic about directories to engage with them.
Directories is too hard a sell; it takes time, effort, it can be awkward to ask for references, and there are plenty of alternative ways to market a law practice.
You really have to want to do it.
On the positive side, there are plenty of lawyers who do want to engage with legal directories – who see the value in it – so let them take part rather than trying to twist the arm of the reluctant ones.
Some lawyers turn up to their offices every day, do a great job for their clients, and go home in the evening.
They don’t write articles, post on social media, speak at conferences, give media interviews, or drink in the pub across the street.
Every firm has a significant number of such people.
And that’s fine – why do these things if you are well regarded by your clients and have a successful practice?
The issue arises, however, when these lawyers want to engage with the legal directories, and find it hard to make progress.
(Often it’s not the lawyers themselves pushing to raise their profile, but an excitable legal marketer urging them to “get out more”).
Few people in the wider market know these lawyers, the lawyers are wary (understandably) of providing client references, and their clients are not the kind of people who would say much to the directories – if at all.
My advice to these lawyers: don’t bother with the directories.
You probably don’t need them, and if you’re good enough, the directories will find you anyway.
All talk, no action
On the flipside to our low-key lawyers are those who are everywhere.
They are prolific writers, speakers, they’re all over the internet, at every conference, on every board, committee, quoted by every media outlet.
In some areas of legal practice, a vital part of building your name is to raise your public profile, and this can also help with the legal directories.
When directory researchers interview people in the market, if you are a well-known face, a “known quantity”, the directories will hear about you more, and are more likely to check you out.
But your profile has to be backed up by real work.
Some high-profile lawyers are great technicians, some are senior rainmakers and feed a lot of work to colleagues, but some don’t have much work to shout about.
A trend I have noticed in recent years is for lawyers to increasingly focus in their submissions on things other than their legal work.
By all means, mention the various initiatives and committees you’re involved with, but remember that the core purpose of directories is to cut through the noise and get to the meat of what work is being done – and by whom.
Directories like to track lawyers through their careers.
A classic trajectory would be a talented younger lawyer, who first starts engaging with the directories just before or after making partner, then rises up through the ranks – perhaps from the “up and coming/rising star” section into the main list.
Then over the years – hopefully – rising up the tables, eventually becoming a “senior statesperson” in the latter part of their career.
When you prepare submissions, you aim for a balance of age and experience, but remember that probably 90 percent of lawyers in the directories are in the 35-60 age range.
Mid/late 30s being the time that many lawyers make partner, through the main decades of a legal career – the 40s and 50s – then into 60s.
There are always exceptions, but for the most part I would advise a lawyer in their mid-60s or older, who has not already been recognized by the directories, to think of other profile-raising exercises rather than embarking upon directory submissions for the first time.
Young lawyers have always struggled in legal directories.
Law is a profession that prizes wisdom and experience, and the directories mostly feature lawyers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.
To be fair to the directories, they rank more young lawyers than they did in the past, but it’s tough for lawyers in their 20s and early 30s to break through.
If you are a talented, ambitious senior associate who wants to promote themselves to the legal directories, go for it.
But it takes time, so be prepared for a long haul.
Late to the party
If you are new to the directories, bear in mind you are competing with firms who have been at this game for years.
Sometimes lawyers say to me: “I have never bothered with the directories before, but I want to be in it now”.
When you look at the tables in the mature directories, the lists have evolved over decades.
Chambers USA, for example, is 20 years old, the Legal 500 UK directory 30 years old.
Some firms and lawyers have submitted year on year since these directories were first launched, and have built up a strong foothold in the lists.
That’s not to put anyone off, there will always be new firms and new lawyers, but the directories reward persistence – firms and lawyers who engage with them continuously over time.
Submitting – unsuccessfully – for too long
Sometimes it’s best to give up and accept that directories isn’t working for you.
Most firms and lawyers with a solid legal practice who approach the process in the right way will eventually see some reward.
But in some cases, it’s just not meant to be.
You may have a perfectly decent practice, but for the reasons above, the directories don’t pick up on you.
It may be that your practice doesn’t fit neatly into one of the categories, or you’re in a practice where you rarely come across other lawyers, and struggle to attract feedback.
A law firm approached me recently who had been trying for 10 years to get into one of the directories without success.
I looked at their situation, and offered a few suggestions as to what they could do.
One of those options was to move on to something else.
Engaging with the directories costs money.
Not just direct costs like paying your staff to prepare entries, and taking out advertising profiles, but the significant amount of time it takes to write submissions and manage the process.
Plus the opportunity cost – what you could otherwise be doing.
For some people, the value is not there.
Some firms accept that directories are a long haul, and build the costs into their approach.
But others are cost sensitive, and want to see instant reward for their investment.
If that’s the case, directories are not for you.
Pictured: taken from London Bridge, August 2021 (by Lloyd Pearson)
Robert Nigro says
Wonderful overview of the realities of this always frustrating, sometime rewarding endeavor. I wish all my lawyers touched by the directory experience would read this post.