A long-time market leader in the somewhat crowded peer-review section of the legal directories market, Best Lawyers‘ recent tie-up with U.S. News & World Report added a significant string to the directory’s bow. Here’s what Best Lawyers founder Steve Naifeh had to say when I caught up with him earlier this week.
Best Lawyers is among the longest-running legal rankings publications. How – if at all – and why has the philosophy behind it changed since the early days?
“Best Lawyers has changed a lot in the past 32 years. We now have almost 50 people in two offices (South Carolina and New York), not just me in one office. We cover hundreds of legal practice areas in over 65 legal markets, not just ten practice areas in the U.S. We rank firms as well as lawyers. We have a website that reaches about a million unique visitors a month instead of a book that reached several thousand lawyers a year.
But even though a lot has changed, the philosophy hasn’t changed. At Best Lawyers, providing the most accurate possible ratings remains our core mission – even though legal rankings have become a business since we started out three decades ago and so many competitors have entered the field.”
In a market where several of the best-known directories have made client feedback a central feature of their research, how difficult has it been to resist that, and stick with peer review?
“We believe that client feedback can be extremely valuable, and we have added it to peer-review as a part of the rating process for law firms. But we know that corporate clients – and especially general counsel who deal with many different lawyers and law firms – provide more dependable opinions than individuals who are not themselves lawyers or who have not dealt with many lawyers. Individual clients tend to focus on results and personality. Sometimes the best possible lawyer can’t deliver ideal results in terrible circumstances. And however desirable a good personality may be, it is as important to have the right lawyer as it is to have the right doctor, regardless of personality.”
Best Lawyers expanded the scope of its coverage beyond the United States relatively recently to include various key international markets, including the UK and Continental Europe. How’s that going?
“We have been working since 2009 throughout Europe and in the major legal markets in Asia and Latin America, as well as in Canada and Mexico. Because our lists run in major newspapers in many of these markets, our lists have become extremely important – the most important lists even in some markets that we have entered relatively recently.”
Best Lawyers‘ tie-up in 2010 with U.S. News was one of the biggest developments in the directories market in recent times. What prompted that decision?
“U.S. News has a reputation for rankings in general, as well as a very strong platform, and is moving into many new fields beyond its obvious strengths in rating schools and hospitals. It seemed like a natural partnership to bring our new law firm rankings to the largest and most influential possible audience.”
Three editions in, how is the U.S. News-Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” product going? Has its success in gaining traction in what is a pretty saturated market matched your expectations?
“The traction was very strong from the beginning, partly because the leaders of so many of the largest law firms in the country are on the boards of schools and hospitals that are rated by U.S. News. The traction has gotten stronger each year as lawyers and law firm leaders see how carefully we undertake the research process, how hard we work to make the process better and easier each year, and how valuable the ratings are to legal marketing.”
What plans are in the pipeline for developing Best Lawyers? Or is it a case (perfectly understandably!) of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
“A company can always be improved, and we are constantly thinking of ways to improve Best Lawyers. A phrase I hate hearing from anyone on our team is that “we’ve always done it this way.” Innovation and technology can improve any company, as I believe they have improved ours. It is a long time, and much has changed, since I began the first peer-review list in the legal profession 32 years ago with paper and pencil and a telephone. I am still trying to believe that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Naturally, I will certainly keep Savage Comms informed of major changes.”
Being a seasoned directories’ professional, what’s your opinion on the current state of the directories market? How do you see directories continuing to play a role going forward?
“There are too many directories and too many of them are all about making money. I am sure that the market will shake some of them out, and I believe that quality will be a factor.”