Ratings game-- Legal consultants, experts debate value of law firm rankings as a marketing tool

By Mike Scott

Legal News

There are many opportunities for both lawyers and law firms to receive recognition by regional or national publications for excellence. But the desired target audience and areas of specialty practices should help a law firm determine which "top lists" it should focus on, according to a pair of area legal consultants.

The options are virtually unlimited, said Bob Henderson, an attorney and law firm consultant who spent 38 years practicing litigation law in Port Huron. The University of Michigan Law School graduate now lives in Wyoming where he runs RJH Consulting. There are about 950 different formal rankings for law firms nationally, and all of them can be considered an important opportunity, Henderson said.

"If you are a regional or large city law firm, then you want the exposure of being a top-rated law firm and it should be a part of your marketing efforts," Henderson said. "It may not be the main reason that (a client works with a firm), but it can help develop a sense of quality and legitimacy."

The most commonly known law firm ranking is through Martindale-Hubbell which gives its top law firms an AV rating that is measured by peers. Such a rating still holds a certain amount of cache in the industry, Henderson said.

"It is not as popular for law firms to pay for Martindale-Hubbell listings these days because they want to see immediate value," Henderson said. "There are a number of other internet services that my clients will use."

But some law firms likely don't focus on law firm rankings, said Elizabeth Jolliffe, president of Your Benchmark Coach, an Ann Arbor- based professional consulting firm for individual lawyers. That is likely because few clients will review law firm rankings, or even know where to go to find them, when searching for legal counsel, according to Jolliffe.

"I really doubt that most firms need to pay attention to law firm rankings. In fact I doubt that most clients care about rankings at all," Joliffe said.

However, the topic of law firm rankings came to the forefront again this fall when U.S. News and World Report issued its first-ever law firm rankings, something that had first been announced in July 2009. Some legal experts wondered if this would be a "game changer" given that the widely-read consumer publication has long been recognized for similar rankings in other fields, including law schools, colleges, and businesses.

And even if the U.S. News rankings failed to penetrate the consumer public, because of the prestige outside of the legal industry, it could have a large impact on the opinions of corporate counsel and recent law school students, some thought.

Large corporate clients with "bet the company" cases tend to choose high profile, large firms with excellent reputations. The decision makers do this as a safety precaution so that their hiring decision is not second guessed if the case does not turn out well, said Joliffe, a former practicing attorney in metro Detroit and current board member for the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association.

"At that level, the firms' reputations are generally known by the corporate in-house counsel regardless of the publically released rankings," Jolliffe said.

Martindale-Hubbell, through its Lexis Nexus program, also ranks the top 10 law firms in any category by city and state. And there are a variety of other rating systems that rank large law firms, such as Vault 100, Avery Index, USA Today, and U.S. News and World Report.

In addition, there are a variety of professional law firm networks, many of them which allow just one law firm per metropolitan market to join. That list includes The Harmony Group, Primerius, The State Capital Group, Alpha, Lexmundi, and more. Larger firms also should be listed in chamber of commerce organizations and websites as a way to build awareness at a local level.

"Being a part of one of these law firm networks can give a firm a higher rating among the most recognized (rankings)," Henderson said. "If you are looking for clientele statewide or regionally, marketing departments need to pay attention to these rankings and understand how to market them to attract new clients."

Yet it is impossible for firms to concentrate on being highly rated in all law firm rankings, Henderson said. And a lack of participation in filling out response forms can skew the results toward those firms that have more interest in being involved.

"Most law firms will look at these ranking systems and decide which may be appropriate," Henderson said. "As a firm, you have to decide what your target market is and what ratings services might make the most sense. And you also may want to emphasize the lawyers on your team that are listed as Super or Best Lawyers as a way to improve your overall firm ranking."

Those law firms that value the perceived prestige of the rankings as important are likely looking at them as more critical to the firm's overall brand than clients do, Jolliffe said.

"In general, (some) firms probably put more focus on the rankings than is warranted," she said.

Published: Mon, Nov 29, 2010