The Legal 500 can lay claim to being among the best-established, longest-running research-based guides in the market; more than 20 years on, it remains an essential, market-leading publication in the rankings world. I caught up with Publishing Director David Burgess, who has been instrumental in successfully steering The Legal 500 through some testing market conditions over the past few years – and who remains as bullish as ever about the future.
What’s the one thing that, in your view, sets The Legal 500 apart from the other research guides in the market?
“I’m not sure there is just one thing. But I’ll focus on something that I feel is important – the quality of the research team. Research guides should live or die by the quality and depth of their research, and to do this effectively you need to have experienced researchers who understand the market and the practice areas. It’s a widespread criticism of other guides that they employ only fresh graduates and that the researchers change every year – this is a cause of constant frustration for law firms, and I understand.
The Legal 500 research team benefits from having a wide range of experienced researchers (including former lawyers, legal journalists and research specialists) who return to their practice areas or jurisdictions year after year. It’s always interesting when I’m out meeting with firms across the world – many of the firms refer to my researchers by their first names, as they have known them for many years, but don’t know who the researchers are for the other guides.
It’s also important to note that each of the editors here also conduct research, they lead by example, and helps to give us a real understanding of the issues that affect corporate counsel.”
What are the key things firms most often get wrong in their submissions?
“The key thing to remember is that The Legal 500 focuses on the teams, rather than the individuals. That’s not to say great lawyers aren’t important, but from my many years of talking to in-house counsel, they focus on the strength of the team, from partners to associates, and assess the overall capability of the practice that they wish to instruct. There is a backlash against the numerous guides that focus on the individuals – what many in the market refer to as “vanity guides” – as there is no real editorial depth or analysis. So, for the submissions, that has to be the focus. And the tough part for firms, especially the larger firms, is to take that ego out of the equation and produce a submission that puts the team, not the individuals, forward.
Let me put it like this: firms should think of their submissions as a pitch document for a new client, highlighting the strength of the team, recent examples of work that show the unique aspects of that practice, and that it’s a team, not a series of unrelated individuals.
Another area that firms often get wrong is when talking about work, they focus on the technical details, instead of talking about why that work is representative of the practice (ie. why was it innovative? why is it market-leading?). And a long list of work is not that helpful – we understand that law firms work on many deals throughout the year, but focus on the ones that show the high-level abilities, and leave the cookie-cutter work off the submission.
Finally, firms have to be realistic about where they feel they are in the market – give us feedback on last year’s rankings, but be honest.”
How do interviews with partners affect a firm’s rankings? Can a strong partner interview tip the balance and get a firm promoted (and vice versa)?
“There are a number of factors that affect a firm’s ranking, and there is no exact science of formula. However, I would add here that there is a misconception that the research guides are ‘80% what the clients say’ – it simply isn’t true. The submissions, the client feedback, peer feedback and firm interviews are all important and go into the mix.
What I can say is that a good interview helps but doesn’t exactly tip the balance – that would be to suggest that we are influenced in the wrong way – ultimately we have to look at all the evidence, and weigh it up against the evidence from every other firm. Likewise, an interview that doesn’t go well is not going to lead us to drop a firm in the rankings.
We don’t interview every firm for every practice area. In fact, often we can see from the submission exactly what a firm has been doing, and when you couple that with experienced researchers returning to the area they covered last year, often an interview is not necessary as we have all we need. But if firms feel that in certain practice areas they haven’t told their story, or want to highlight changes that have been made (either in the team, or in the demands of clients) then they should request an interview. And on that point, I would also add: don’t sit back and wait for someone to contact you. There’s a reason we publish the researchers’ names (and contact details), and we would encourage you to contact them at the start of the research process to request your interviews!”
What’s your one golden rule for partners participating in interviews with your researchers?
“Be prepared. The worst interviews happen when partners haven’t read their own submission, or looked at last year’s editorial or rankings. And if you don’t have what you want to say prepared, then the interview will be vague and directionless. Fortunately many partners are well prepared, and the marketing and business development teams in most firms take the time to prep them the day before, and debrief them afterwards. If firms don’t do this, I would urge them to do it. And if after the interview, the firm feels that the key points may not have come across, by all means, follow up with the researcher afterwards.”
A firm is unhappy with a particular ranking. What’s the best way for them to address it with you?
“We are always happy to give feedback to firms (within confidentiality boundaries, of course) as to why we have ranked them as we have. The best way for us to deal with any questions about rankings is to keep on top of the enquiries, so we ask everyone to send an email to email@example.com, and our truly amazing admin team will make sure it gets to the right people who are able to deal with it. However, when we launch each book, we are usually inundated with enquiries, so it does take time to go through them all. So I would urge firms to be patient while we work through them all.
Some other tips: it is always better to have one person centrally at the firm that everything is sent through – what often delays us are questions that come from numerous people at the same firm (often with roughly the same questions) that take time to answer individually. It is better for us to get a central set of questions that we answer, and which can be sent round to the relevant people in the firm by that contact person. I would also suggest that firms gather their questions and send them through in one communication, rather than drip-feeding individual questions – which again, is more time-consuming and less efficient.”
The Legal 500 covers barristers as well as law firms. Are there any strategic differences in how barristers’ chambers should prepare their submissions?
“Of course, the Bar is a very different beast, and submissions for this should partly ignore my earlier comment about individuals! But the part about being realistic should also qualify, and when it comes to getting silks and juniors into the listings, think of the bigger picture. If we have previously recommended 5 juniors, and the set has 25, don’t put them all forward as leading juniors – it is unrealistic to think that they are all “leading”, and then it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees within that set.
The submissions for law firms should focus on the work over the past 12 months, but with sets, while we want to see the key work done over the past year, we also need to see long-term work. The length of time on each case is, as a rule of thumb, much longer that for solicitors, so sets need to present a full body of evidence of work carried out by its tenants.
When it comes to the silks and juniors, don’t simply copy and past what is on the website, as we’re able to see that anyway. Take a bit of time to explain the demands of clients, and put some context into the cases that have been worked on.”
Does The Legal 500 have any plans to do something similar to the Chambers Confidential initiative – that is, allow firms to buy the complete, unadulterated feedback gathered during the research process?
“A question we get asked a lot, and one we have given a lot of thought to. Ultimately, part of our research comes from the clients, and we guarantee that any feedback they give us is confidential. In order to ensure that clients wish to continue to give us feedback, we feel that selling that information back to the firms is not the right thing to do for us as a business. As I mentioned earlier, if firms want feedback as to why they are ranked where they are, then we are more than happy to provide that feedback – free of charge.”
What initiatives does The Legal 500 have in the pipeline for the coming year that you’d like to tell the world about?
“So many I hardly know where to begin! Some of our initiatives we aren’t telling the world about yet, but I’ll keep you updated when we are able to – in fact, I’ll be able to let you know next week of a new initiative we have here in the UK, so stay tuned.
Obviously the main one that we are focusing on is the Corporate Counsel 100 Series, which is being rolled out globally. The first edition is focusing on the United States. It’s interesting that so many companies are publishing endless (and often the same) lists of the best lawyers in private practice, and not focusing on what really matters – the clients. The Corporate Counsel 100 Series aims to highlight the very best in innovative in-house, and the interviews that we have conducted with the in-house nominees have been illuminating, so we can’t wait to share that with our 2.5 million in-house readership. And obviously a key element will be launching the results at the Association of Corporate Counsel annual meeting in Los Angeles, and The Economist General Counsel Summit in London in October, where we will be the only research guide attending both of these events.
We have more in-house roundtables in the pipeline, and a new bespoke research department that will be producing a major survey in the first quarter of 2014 – more details to follow.
The Legal 500 is now covering Canada, and the results will go online in early October ready for the International Bar Association (IBA) annual conference in Boston. I’ll be at all these events, so if anyone wants to meet me there, then please do drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In November we are launching The Legal 500 Deutschland, an expanded German-language guide that will cover approximately 500 of the leading firms in Germany, primarily for the domestic market. We’ve had a dedicated team of German researchers working on that since December of last year, so finally Germany will have an independent, in-depth research guide that clients and firms can rely on.
Any and all new initiatives, I will of course let you know about for you to let your readers know about over the forthcoming months.”