Staring at the moon. Staring at legal directory rankings. Both likely to induce involuntary howling.
But don’t. Listen instead.
Leaving aside the moon part for the astronomers out there, I’ll focus the rest of this short soliloquy on the subject of new legal directory rankings and how to approach them. It seems like a good time to do so, since Chambers & Partners launched its High Net Worth and Canada guides in the past couple of weeks (here), and The Legal 500 UK 2018 edition went live about 15 hours ago (here).
So, you’re mid mouth opening, ready to scream at the rash of results and the awareness that some folks are going to be less than best pleased. You’re attempting to get your head round the results and how it compares to last year, and related issues such as, “why don’t they show last year’s results to make my job easier?”
Bite your lip, stifle that howl, and do not – under any circumstances – look at the moon. Then take a look at the new rankings. The positions are what they are, but the rankings and the written content, in particular, can tell you a lot.
Leaving aside the obvious need for self-awareness of (a) whether you made a submission for the practice area and (b) whether key lawyers left in the lead-up to (or during) research, here are just some of the things those new results can tell you:
1) Are there any quotes cited by the directory? No? This is a decent sign that your reference outreach efforts weren’t successful. The ideal scenario is that numerous referees reply and say much the same thing, giving researchers a clear trend to follow (and then evidence). Even if responses were limited in number, there’s some value in anecdote. In either situation, researchers will quote client comments (peer comments too, in the case of Chambers). If there are no quotes, then it’s highly likely that very few or no references replied, or – at the very least – that what they said was monosyllabic and unhelpful. This gives point 1 in the list of tips for improving things during next year’s application. (Note to self: find more references to respond!)
2) Are only one or two of your lawyers mentioned? If so, it’s worth looking at whether you supplied enough references or examples of work to support the application of lawyers who were not recommended. This is especially important in the case of Chambers, where you are limited to 20 references – don’t let one star partner hog all the referees but, equally, don’t try to share 20 between 15 lawyers. A good rule of thumb is that 1 in 3 or 4 references will reply. Spam filters and busy workloads will get in the way of the rest of them. So try to have at least 3 or 4 references for each partner you really want to push for a ranking. And give the younger lawyers some airtime with some references of their own (often possible to do where they have worked for a client alongside one of the partners you are putting forward).
3) Did you work on the very same matters as the firms in Tier 1 / Band 1, but you’re in Tier 3 / Band 3? Did you actually tell the directories about those matters? And, even if you did, did you do so on a publishable basis? If not, that’s something to reconsider for next year. Researchers can only work with what is available. Matters not in the public domain can only come to their attention through conversation with the parties involved. While there is always a concern over client confidentiality (especially in some more conservative markets or practice areas), information is the currency of the directories and they need something to go in order to make a best case for your firm. The leading global directories (and the leading local ones) have reputations that are utterly reliant on how they treat confidential information. Breaches are vanishingly rare. Trust them with some of your best examples of work – fully communicating your involvement in a top case or deal, even on a confidential basis, will allow researchers to go away and cross-reference, and often validate the matter. If it can be validated, then you’ll get full credit, just like your Tier 1 / Band 1 rival did.
4) Did the writeup miss a crucial point of the practice? Check if your firm did an interview in the practice area. Was that point mentioned in the submission or the interview? In these situations, often it turns out that it wasn’t. (Note to self: point of emphasis for next year.)
5) Is the write-up bland and lacking incisive coverage of your cutting-edge case? If so, take a look if you pitched the submission at the right level. If the submission reads like an excellent lawyerly article, then it’s too high-level. Some researchers have done legal training or practised, but most have not. Pitch the practice to them in the language of what they are: intelligent layman journalists that will understand complex points when explained clearly. Help them understand how that acronym is actually the most fundamental point of law governing your firm’s practice in this area.
6) Is your firm working for the same clients and on the same matters as your higher-ranked rivals? If so, and these matters are written about in both write-ups, then that is a signal to pose the question to the directory: where did we fall short? How can we provide better evidence? Chambers and The Legal 500 both openly invite queries about the rankings, so take advantage. The answers will give you points to focus on for next year. Sometimes it might provide a useful reality check such as, “yes, you acted on that top matter but all of the Band 1 firms were doing that level of work routinely, whereas this was an exceptional matter for your firm”. In those circumstances, it helps to manage expectations and perhaps even to look at diverting resources to focus on optimising more important submissions next year.