Except for those who've been living in a cave recently, most every attorney has noticed the proliferation of companies eager to evaluate and rate their services.
"Over the past year I've counted six companies that have contacted me to tell me that I've been rated, in one way or another, as someone [deserving] of recognition," says Paul Glad, a San Francisco?based litigation and insurance partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. "This is a brilliant marketing scheme?playing to the egos of lawyers."
Certainly it is a popular scheme. At least three new ratings firms have launched in the past two years alone. But it may also be a challenging endeavor, as the ratings firms increasingly fight to get noticed?or even just to keep conducting business.
Attorneys upset over their low ratings by Avvo.com are seeking class action status for a suit they filed in June, through which they hope to force greater transparency in the site's rating system for lawyers. (At press time, a decision on Avvo's motion to dismiss was expected.) The suit alleges that the online start-up's "arbitrary and capricious scores" mislead consumers and constitute unfair and deceptive practices. Cofounder Mark Britton, the former general counsel for the travel site Expedia.com, says Avvo's ratings system?which Avvo considers to be part of its "secret sauce"?is not meant as a definitive evaluation of lawyers' skills but provides consumers with some guidance in their choice of an attorney. The Seattle company also says it is improving its ratings by more frequently reviewing and adjusting the information collected from attorneys and consumers.
Meanwhile, last year New Jersey's Committee on Attorney Advertising ruled that advertising in Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers in America violates the state's Rules of Professional Conduct, which ban attorney advertisements that either are comparative or would create unjustified expectations. (Committee on Attorney Advertising, Opinion 39.) The Supreme Court of New Jersey granted a stay on the ruling, but the case was up for review at press time.
It's no mystery why there's plenty of interest in publishing advertising-supported attorney ratings: Law firms spend approximately $3.4 billion annually on client development and marketing, according to John Lipsey, vice president of corporate counsel services at LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell in Los Angeles.
To win a share of those marketing dollars, two British companies, Chambers & Partners and Legal500. com, have devised ratings systems based on interviews with clients and other independent research. "They do a lot of due diligence," says Jennifer Manton, chief marketing officer at Loeb & Loeb in its Los Angeles office. Similarly, Los Angeles?based Lawdragon conducts interviews and does independent research?although its "Lawdragon 500" rankings are only a small part of its business, which primarily offers attorneys an online professional networking site. (Former editors at the Daily Journal Corp., the parent company of this magazine, founded Lawdragon in 2005.)
Other ratings organizations supplement their research with a peer-review system. Best Lawyers, for example, sends out ballots to lawyers listed in previous editions, asking them to vote on lawyers for the upcoming edition. Super Lawyers asks as many lawyers as it can reach to recommend people with whose work they are familiar. Martindale-Hubbell, the granddaddy of lawyer directories, also uses a peer-review system but is working on a client-based review system as well. "We're aware that the market needs this type of service," says Lipsey.
Avvo.com takes yet another approach, rating lawyers primarily on a ten-point scale based mostly on public information?for example, from bar associations, court records, and lawyers' websites?as well as on input that consumers and attorneys post to the site.
Whatever the system used to arrive at the ratings, law firms are divided on their value. As Manton of Loeb & Loeb says, "The attorneys who participate will tell you that their clients see it, and those who don't, say their clients don't care." And on attorney blogs, such ratings have been labeled as "self-serving" and "junk mail."
One point of agreement, however, is that today's glut of ratings can be burdensome for firms. "It's taking more time now than ever" to coordinate interviews with lawyers and prepare submissions, says Mike Scherpereel, director of branding and communications for international firm Reed Smith, which has four California offices. According to one marketing professional with a California law firm, who asked not to be identified, filling out information for just one of the ratings firms requires a full-time person for three months each year. "It's getting out of control," she says.
But if the courts don't correct the situation, then perhaps the market will. Lloyd Pearson, a former editor at Chambers & Partners who is now communications manager for the international firm White & Case, says of the many market players, "There will probably be some streamlining."