Interview with Legal 500 EMEA: Mike Nash, Editor

The Legal 500 Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) 2014 edition is imminent, with a launch date (online and in print) this year of 10 April 2014. Planning for The Legal 500 EMEA 2015 is also already well underway. Editor Mike Nash was full of useful insights into the process when I caught up with him last week.

Are you planning any changes to the structure of the book this year? Any new practice areas/changes in approach the market needs to be aware of?

We always take on board feedback from readers, client referees and law firms in order to fine-tune the next edition to cover emerging practice areas or jurisdictions. Probably the most visible example of that in the 2014 edition is that we’ve reintroduced coverage of Iraq as the need for commercial law really picks up.

For the 2015 edition, we will be introducing new coverage including a number of additional markets: for example, our Africa coverage will expand and there are also jurisdictions in Southeastern Europe that we will be adding. I can’t say precisely which ones as that’s embargoed until we announce the new schedule and guidelines in April – keep an eye out for news on our EMEA research webpage:

What is The Legal 500 doing differently now compared with three or five years ago?

We’ve certainly reoriented our focus to maximise our engagement with the market, both in terms of readers of the book who are looking for law firms to instruct – you’ll see that with, for example, our Corporate Counsel series, which recognises leading lawyers in-house – and in terms of getting out and about to visit law firms in more jurisdictions.

The Legal 500’s experienced editorial team frees us up to accommodate more visits to more jurisdictions, knowing that others can “hold the fort” effectively while we’re away; we’re keen to do more visits and it’s fair comment to say we are doing many more than was the case five years ago. Within the past couple of weeks, for example, our Asia-Pacific editor has been in Hong Kong and mainland China, our Latin America editor has been in Argentina and Uruguay, and I am just about to leave for a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

There are different views on the usefulness of visiting law firms: what’s your view?

There are two types of visits, of course: those by editors and those by researchers. Talking editors first, law firms are appreciative of the chance to meet and talk about the research process, how the firm can engage with it more, and how they can maximise the presentation of their arguments to be ranked. It’s also useful from our perspective because we get a heads-up on happenings in the market, as well as a chance to have a frank conversation with law firms about what they can do to help us to help them. Since we aim to rank every law firm as highly as the available information merits, it’s in the interests of us and the law firms to keep the information flow going.

In terms of researcher visits, this is something we have also increased markedly in recent years. Each year I have been editor of EMEA, I have been keen to increase the number of researcher visits; we have increased those numbers so that, for EMEA 2014, we visited 16 countries. The sheer volume of data and finite amounts of time means that we can’t visit all countries within the research period, but it does help the law firms to put a name to a face and to realise that we have good continuity and experience in our team – one of our researchers just retired, which is an indication of the experience we can bring to bear! It also helps the researchers to get a gauge of the intangibles in the market – such as the accessibility and convenience of the law firms’ office location and the visibility of certain client companies in the market – and to talk with firms frankly.

I’d like to increase the number of visits again for the EMEA 2015 edition and will keep pushing that until the accounts department tells me the budget is maxed out!

What have you taken away from your visits?

It’s good to meet lawyers, marketing and business development colleagues and to exchange ideas, and to make contacts to whom you can turn if you have questions. It also helps to shape our guides going forward, as we can amend our coverage to address emerging practice areas or to be aware of significant changes locally – e.g. the fact that Romania has just changed its rules so that advertising and self-promotion has been drastically inhibited. That information was passed to us hot off the presses by lawyers and journalists whom I and our Romania researcher had met very recently. Without those meetings, it’s probable the info would not have been passed on and we would have been slower to find it out.

On another point, accident of invitations and events has meant that much of my recent focus has been on the CIS region – including a trip to Ukraine in December and an appearance via video conference as a speaker at Russia’s National Legal Congress on the subject of legal directories. There is great interest in legal directories and guides generally but alongside that it was instructive to get a sense of just how ingrained and prevalent is the region’s wariness about unfamiliar lawyers, legal directories and consultants – i.e. whether they can be trusted. In the West, the legal market has long since become accustomed to good legal directories providing a valuable second (or first) opinion on unfamiliar markets, but that is a view that is still taking hold in parts of the CIS.

What do you think The Legal 500, as a legal directory, can do to challenge that wariness?

Well, it’s about openness and visibility. For example, I’d venture to suggest that a serious legal directory should always be prepared to provide feedback on the reasons for any ranking, or about ways in which law firms can participate most effectively and perhaps make a better case for themselves next year; that is something we are always happy to do. We meet law firms to discuss these very issues, we also conduct seminars for law firms and marketing teams to address these points, and we take the opportunity to speak at conferences and webinars to explain what we do, how we do it and to illuminate the robustness and fair-mindedness of our research, and the fact that it is free to take part – we’re not charging any money, so why would we need to be biased? I think the fact that the EMEA 2015 edition will be the 25th anniversary of the EMEA guide is an indication that we do things properly and don’t take our task lightly.

Second point is that there is no cost to participate in research, so law firms really should avail themselves of the opportunity to get some free, targeted exposure to the more than 4 million users of our website, the vast bulk of whom are corporate counsel looking at it precisely because they want to instruct a lawyer.

Firms have been submitting to The Legal 500 EMEA for 25 years this year. What are some of the things firms continue to get wrong with their submissions?

First off, it should be said that any submission is gratefully received – we appreciate that law firms go to considerable effort to provide us with information as part of the research process.

Getting to the nitty-gritty of what goes wrong with submissions: the two simplest and most obvious errors are inconsistent participation and missing deadlines.

Our aim is always to provide the best case for every law firm based on the available evidence and benchmarked against the competition. That analytical process is evidence-based, so the more evidence we have the stronger an argument we can make. Needless to say, there are many things a law firm can tell us that isn’t available in the public domain, so we generally have more information about those law firms which do participate than those which do not. If a law firm provides a submission every year, it keeps us updated with a rolling and consistent flow of information about the things it wants us to know.

Missing deadlines very simply harms the research by reducing the amount of time we have to conduct our research to verify facts, talk to clients or seek out other supporting evidence; invariably a late submission is also a rushed submission, so the arguments therein are generally not as well made as they could or should be. In terms of the submissions we do receive, rather than focus on what goes wrong, I’d point to what makes a submission right. The best submissions are concise and focused.

How should firms achieve that conciseness and focus in submissions?

First and foremost, understand how The Legal 500 covers the practice area (i.e. know what is the scope of coverage). How we cover it might differ from other publications.

Once you know the parameters, work out what message you want to convey about the firm’s practice.

Divide submissions into separate documents – one per practice area – which keeps info concise. Every researcher reviews hundreds of submissions containing huge quantities of data, so keeping a submission focused on the practice area and the desired message, with lean and specific supporting evidence is the best way to make important arguments and facts stand out for consideration.

Some of the best submissions can be as short as two pages long and will contain the following:

  • A very brief introduction to the practice and key changes over the past 12 months (e.g. pertinent changes to the law, important new clients, partner promotions/hires/departures) and can be usefully presented in bullet-point fashion; note also that, since many of our researchers will cover the same country each year, you don’t need to introduce the whole market, just give us a brief heads-up on what’s new and significant since we last spoke.
  • Constructive comments on previous rankings about your law firm and competitors, along with supporting arguments for ranking changes with reasons (e.g. your firm acted in 5 of 6 Supreme Court cases to be heard during the year).
  • Identify key lawyers in the practice – not a list of everyone, but those who are team leaders or that you genuinely feel we should rank because they are clearly widely respected by clients (avoid including extensive biographies – we can access them from the website or ask you for them if we need more).
  • 5-10 examples of recent work. Ideally those will name the client, be publishable, explain the work and its context/significance, and name the lawyers involved, and provide the dates of the work. Generic/non-specific examples are rather unhelpful because they are not verifiable and cannot be benchmarked against other practices. Providing old matters completed several years ago is also a no-no; by all means, do mention an old matter if it was a seminal case or deal that illustrates the practice’s provenance, but save the key work highlights for what is new and current to show the practice still attracts work.
  • A list of existing clients (in particular, flagging up key relationships and also new clients) can be a great way to provide a shorthand illustration of the scope and calibre of the practice. Again, if we want more detail, we can come back to you for it.

All that info can be conveyed in 2-4 pages, which is what I would describe as being a good guideline to the optimum length.

Alongside the written submission should be a list of client referees for us to contact on a confidential and non-attributable basis – getting client feedback is really helpful and we contact more than 250,000 client referees every year, so we get huge volumes of commentary on the qualities of law firms. That said, the clients can only tell us so much – we really have to assess the work that the firm has done, which is why an informative written submission is so useful.

It’s worth noting in passing that the client reference questionnaire has only 5 questions and can be answered genuinely in as little as two minutes, so it isn’t a big drain on clients’ time.

How much weight do you place on native/fluent speakers of foreign languages?

It’s most important to have researchers that understand the legal market – what’s the point of asking a question in a native language if you can’t comprehend the significance of the answer? Most of our researchers have been here several years and many of them are qualified or former lawyers or trainees. That said, The Legal 500 also has a good number of foreign language speakers – e.g. for EMEA, we have a pool of experienced researchers that speak French, German, Italian and Spanish – and extra languages are always a useful asset, but the reality is that, at least at this point in time, the language of international business remains English and we are primarily an English-language publication, so an analytical mind, experience and an ability to write fluently in English are primary requirements for researchers on our English-language publications. Most of our 4 million readers read the English website and, as mentioned previously, we contact more than 250,000 client referees every year that speak English, so research can be conducted effectively. For France and Germany we have French and German-language publications written and researched by native speakers.

What are your thoughts on allocating experienced researchers to the same sections as they covered in previous years. Good idea or bad idea?

We have an experienced team in a structure that rewards commitment and experience, so most of our researchers will be conducting research on the same market year after year. Occasionally, it is a good idea to change up the researcher for a fresh perspective, and sometimes a promotion means that an employee can no longer work on some of the projects. For example, I still conduct research myself but the volume of research I do now is considerably less than three years ago in order to allow me to focus on other things including editing the book(!) and meeting more law firms.

We have a mentoring system in place, where previous researchers of a market will advise researchers who are working on a market for the first time. Also, at the end of each research cycle, every researcher fills out detailed feedback on what is going on in the market, ranking changes and reasons for them and, just as importantly, rankings that didn’t change but where we want to keep an eye on certain lawyers or practices for potential changes next year. This is a useful reminder to researchers even if they covered the market last year and it means that our research team always goes into new research phases forearmed with our company’s collective experience.

Are there any other EMEA-focused initiatives you’re planning for the coming year?

In short, yes. Until we publish the new schedule for The Legal 500 EMEA, I can’t reveal full details but I can say that we’ll be covering more markets in the 2015 edition than we did in 2014, and certainly Africa will be in for a dose of enhanced coverage.

Also, the Corporate Counsel series (which our company debuted last year to recognise the industry contribution of leading in-house lawyers) has done the US and Latin America and will reach certain markets in EMEA, with a Corporate Counsel Africa being next up.

There are also a number of other significant projects in the pipeline which I can’t talk about at this point in time but that I hope we’ll be able to announce over the next few weeks and months.