U.S.-based legal news website Above The Law announced earlier this week the launch of its “Top Outside Counsel” ranking. The results of the survey – produced in conjunction with litigation finance firm Lake Whillans – can be seen here.
According to Above The Law’s stated methodology, more than 1,000 in-house lawyers, from nearly 500 companies and 50+ cities, responded to a survey providing their opinion of their companies’ outside law firms.
The Above The Law survey asked counsel two direct questions: 1) “Which law firms does your company engage for legal services?” and 2) “Please indicate the highest level legal work for which your company will engage the particular firm(s).” The survey defined the “levels” of work along a four-point scale: (1) Cost-efficient, bulk tasks; (2) Routine matters; (3) High-value, complex matters; and (4) “Bet-the-company” matters.
Above The Law then ranked firms in two tiers, comprising the 50 firms with the highest mean ratings based on this scale. Only firms with a minimum threshold number of ratings—as adjusted for firm size—were eligible for inclusion.
So far, so good. As we all know, law firm rankings are big business, and everyone seems to be wanting a piece of the pie – with varying degrees of success.
However, I would question the usefulness of this ranking for a couple of reasons.
First, relying on client feedback to generate law firm rankings is hardly groundbreaking. Chambers & Partners and The Legal 500 have been doing just that for years, with tremendous success. So has BTI Consulting Group with its well-regarded surveys such as the “BTI Client Service A-Team” list. So in this regard, I don’t see that Above The Law’s new ranking brings anything new or innovative to what’s out there already.
Secondly – and here’s the real issue for me – in my view Above The law has massively hedged its bets by only creating two tiers, each containing 25 law firms.
Chambers and The Legal 500 continue to dominate the traditional rankings market for a number of reasons. But to my mind, a key reason for their success is that it’s tough to get ranked in the top tier. This is because, generally speaking, the tiers get shorter – more ‘elite’ – the higher up you go. In some cases, the top tier only contains one firm. Rarely are there more than five firms ranked in the top tier.
This means that for firms ranked in the top tier in Chambers or The Legal 500, there’s an immediate and powerful marketing message: “In Chambers & Partners – which relies heavily on client feedback – we are one of only three firms ranked in Band 1 for Appellate Law in the U.S.” Or even more compelling: “We are one of the top three appellate litigation firms in the U.S.”
This bolder, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is approach that Chambers or The Legal 500 have adopted also reflects well on them: they are saying, “we’ve done extensive research and here are the small handful of firms we believe are the genuine market leaders”.
And this is where Above The Law’s rankings miss a trick, in my view. While I agree with Above The Law’s statement that, “their [in-house counsel’s] opinion is a true measure of law firm prestige”, I don’t see that a top tier containing 24 other firms is much to brag about.
Perhaps this is just a first step in Above The Law’s foray into the world of qualitative rankings, and they plan to finesse the methodology – and the results – with future efforts. Frankly, I think they need to.