Bloomberg Law
April 6, 2015, 2:00 PM

Let’s Get Real About Surveys, Rankings and Awards

Lee Feldman
Independent Law Firm Communications Consultant

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is an independent law firm communications consultant.

By Lee Feldman, Law Firm Communications Consultant

Lately, it seems like the discussion about lawyer and law firm surveys, rankings and awards is coming to a boil. The titles of recent articles and blog posts say it all: “Law Firms See Big Mess in Rankings, Awards” ; “Glut of best-lawyer lists has marketers asking whether they’re worth the trouble” ; and my personal favorite, “Calling Bullsh!t On The Lawyer Ego Industry.” I just wish that one of the many articles and posts had been written by a Big Law partner.

By one count, there are now more than 1,200 species of surveys, rankings and awards programs afflicting the legal industry. What was once a nuisance, cottage industry has become a supervirus plague, draining thousands of hours of attorney and staff time and costing Big Law hundreds of thousands of dollars, while providing little real business development benefit.

I applaud the efforts of the Law Firm Media Professional Survey Committee, headed by Richard Pinto of Shearman & Sterling, to bring some rational thinking to bear on one segment of this problem.

But, despite the fact that research studies and clients panels continue to confirm that 99% of these time wasters mean absolutely nothing to clients and prospects, they continue to proliferate.

Why is that?

Law firm surveys, rankings and awards are the crystal meth of the legal industry. They produce a cheap, brief high for partners while requiring almost no effort on their part. They are addictive (the only thing worse than not receiving an award or ranking is losing one you have.) Partners get hooked at an early age (30 Under 30, 40 Under 40, etc.) Partners who won’t drop a dime on true market research will spend like drunken sailors for the chance to put a plaque on the wall or a line at the end of their bio.

So, despite the fevered wishes of law firm marketing staff, these aren’t going away in our lifetime. If that’s the case, what can Big Law firms do to contain the damage?

Here are some suggestions:

• Stop pay-for-play immediately. Any award or ranking you need to buy isn’t worth it and your clients and prospects know it. Satisfying as it might be to hear your name announced while eating a bad hotel dinner, clients will mentally delete this information in 30 seconds. And go one step further. Tell the world you’re dropping participation in these awards and why. Your clients will think more of you for it.

• Focus on the limited number of awards and rankings which actually offer market feedback. Forget peer review. Everyone in and around the industry knows what backscratching and logrolling is worth. Instead, spend time using the better awards and rankings to understand your true position in the marketplace. That great securities litigation practice you pride your firm on? Well, no one in the client world considers you a player. There’s a reason why Chambers charges so much for Chambers Confidential; it’s the real stuff. Tough love isn’t pretty, but it can go a long way in helping firms shape a practice strategy that’s based in reality.

• Forget the rainmakers and help your rising stars. There’s an entire generation of newly-minted partners out there who are truly worried about their futures. Firm and practice leaders and established rainmakers are pretty well set for the rest of their careers. Use awards and rankings strategically to help younger partners build their expert visibility and client relationships. Doing this can also increase perception of your firm’s bench strength, an issue many clients are concerned about. And don’t take the easy way out on this. SuperLawyers is not going to help younger partners make their bones.

• Nominate your clients for awards. Take some of the time your staff spends on partners and redirect it to identifying local, regional and national award opportunities for your clients. GCs and their in house legal departments don’t get a lot internal recognition. Find ways to put them in the spotlight and ask them how you can help support their award or ranking submissions.

• Repurpose the content. For the handful of awards and rankings that actually require thoughtful and detailed submissions, many Big Law firms put considerable time into profiling their most important wins, and the strategy and execution behind them. In most cases, this content goes into an expensively packaged binder and is never seen or heard of again. (Think ‘Litigation Department of the Year). Reuse this valuable information in every way and across every marketing and communications platform you can.

None of the above is going to stop the insanity. These rackets wouldn’t survive if there wasn’t a long line of suckers ready to step up and write the checks.

Many partners are under the illusion that surveys, awards and rankings are “free.” Nothing could be further from the truth. If you don’t believe me, just ask your associates and marketing staff to start tracking the time they spend on these over the course of a year and do the math. The results will more than surprise you.