Professional rankings by legal publications: how much value do they have?

This posting is prompted by some intriguing comments from Neil Wilkof on IPKat about the marketing benefits of professional listings.

In common with most specialist IP practices, Anderson Law LLP is mentioned in a number of legal directories, including Chambers Directory and IAM Licensing 250.  Small firms such as ours are at a disadvantage compared with the larger IP practices when making submissions to the directories.  Some of the listings are based on taking up references with clients, and the number of clients that we act for in any year is necessarily limited.  We know that there must be limits to our clients’ benevolence in taking calls from researchers from the publications that produce the lists.  For this reason we have focussed our attentions on Chambers Directory and (following its move to a reference-based list this year) IAM Licensing 250, and have not made submissions to other publications including Legal 500 (much to the disappointment of the Legal 500 advertising representative who called us a few weeks ago, and who tried to encourage us to make a submission to his publication; the clear implication being that, if we were successful, he could then sell us advertising space).  Assuming we don’t ask a client to be a referee for more than one practice field in one publication, and that we need up to 5 references for each listing, this means we need up to 15 referees for Chambers Directory (if we apply in the IP, IT and life sciences fields) and another 5 for IAM Licensing 250.

Other listings are not based on client references, or at least not from referees notified by us.  We were pleasantly suprised to receive two awards this year from publications that are outside our usual focus, including awards for UK life sciences law firm of the year, and UK life sciences lawyer of the year.

All of these awards are from commercial publications.  They do not have the objective authority of an award from a professional body, such as being appointed as Queen’s Counsel, or as a member of a specialist panel (neither of which is available to us as IP solicitors in the UK, as only barristers are appointed as QCs, and there is no specialist panel for IP solicitors).  However, prospective clients are not only interested in thresholds of competence, which is what professional awards can provide.  Clients also want to know who is regarded as the best choice in a field of competent professionals – who is at the top of their game in a particular year.  This information may be more ephemeral, and less reliable, than professional awards, but it is still of interest to some people when making a choice of legal adviser.

Commercial publications are there to make a profit.  This obvious fact does not lead to any conclusions about how objective the publication will be.  Some publications, such as Chambers, clearly want to be regarded as objective and reliable, and it helps their profit-making activities to be, and to be seen to be, objective and reliable.  Some other publications may not have the same business priorities.  This is no different to other areas, eg restaurant guides.  A discerning eye can quickly tell which restaurant guides try to take an objective approach, and which provide little more than “puffs” for those paying for entries. But presumably guides in the latter category still persuade punters to visit restaurants, otherwise they would go out of business.  Or are we applying too much logic to the world of PR?

An argument against even the best legal guides is that they are too focussed on the window of 12 months prior to each year’s submissions being made.  Sometimes, law firms feature briefly through acting one or two cases, then disappear again without trace.  We can think of a number of overseas law firms that come into this category in relation to the IP listings.  Is it right that such firms are recommended as IP specialists by a legal directory, based on one previous year’s work, while firms and lawyers who are genuine specialists, and have been for many years, but by chance did not have any major IP cases in the previous year, drop down the rankings?  In our view, this is a weakness of an assessment system that relies entirely on firms’ submissions and a 12 month snap-shot of performance.

Looking at it from the view of the publication, it is cost-effective to employ inexperienced researchers who look simply at the submissions, and contact the referees named in those submissions, before making relative assessments based on the information in front of them.  Introducing other factors, eg a weighting based partly on a 5 year presence in the practice area, or peer recognition, or pro-actively searching out other professionals who have not chosen to make submissions, complicates matters and probably adds to the cost of assessment, even though it may improve the quality of the final product.  For this reason we are not surprised that it was the advertising representative of Legal 500 who contacted us recently, rather than an editor dealing with the IP rankings.

A counter-argument to this is that, over several years, the imperfections in the assessment system average out, and one gets a more reliable picture by looking at several years’ rankings together.  Many law firms’ websites, including ours, provide quotes from several years’ rankings in the legal directories.

Neil Wilkof’s article refers to a lesser-known ranking of female lawyers in a particular region of the USA.  We can confirm that Anderson Law LLP is by far the best two-partner, specialist IP law firm for, oh, …miles around.

5 Comments

Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal practice

5 responses to “Professional rankings by legal publications: how much value do they have?

  1. Pingback: IP Firm Offers Thoughts on Legal Directories - 393 Comms

  2. Mark,
    a very interesting insight into firm rankings. From a country that prohibits advertising/soliciting of work by lawyers we see more and more Indian firms one page advertisements in several magazines. Our office receives on an average 5 emails a month followed by phone calls offering us listings and article submissions at a cost. We have refrained from such paid listings or advertisements but have always wondered how law firms that is as young as 3 months gets ranked by some magazines. I hope now that after reading your article, have a better picture.

  3. As a postscript to this article, we learnt 5 minutes ago that we had been included in the next edition of Legal 500 for the very first time, as a recommended firm for Intellectual Property in the South East of England, despite our not having made a submission. Miracle of miracles! Has someone from Legal 500 been reading this blog…?

  4. Neil Wilkof

    Mark, Thanks for your (as always) interesting comments on professional rankings.

    Neil Wilkof

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