Chambers & Partners continues to be a dominant player in the legal directories market. Its USA edition – a jurisdiction where it had first-mover advantage almost ten years ago – is now as woven into the fabric of the US legal market as its sister titles are elsewhere in the world. I caught up with Chambers USA Editor, Laura Mills, who took time out of the hectic USA research cycle – ongoing as we speak – to tell me about how things are going, and about some new initiatives.
We’re about halfway through the current Chambers USA research cycle. How’s it going?
Everything is going really well! Our team is great and they’re getting excellent feedback from clients and firms. Participation continues to increase, and the quality and depth of the research is better than ever.
Are there any areas (regional/state-wide or practice-based) that you will be expanding in the next edition?
We already provide coverage of all 50 states, but we’d like to expand the rankings to go into more depth in states where we have a major metropolitan economic centre. Illinois and New York are both great examples – the rankings are heavily Chicago- and New York City-dominant, so we’d like to expand coverage of the rest of the state. We’ll likely start small, with a few basic tables in each, but we’d really like to give the smaller firms their time to shine and the right context in which to do it. About half the US economy is small business-driven and most of them probably aren’t looking for legal advice from Wall Street firms, so we’d like to provide recommendations for all types of clients.
We’ve also added a few technology and healthcare tables, as part of our more ‘usual’ expansion, and we’ve given REITs and FCPA tables of their own in the Nationwide chapter.
What are you seeing in terms of general improvements in the standard of submissions coming from firms?
More firms are using our template now, which has made a big difference. As I always say, the templates ask for what we do want and omit what we don’t want, so they’re great guidelines. Also, as I’ve taken the “Chambers Roadshow” (as I like to call it) around the US, I’ve been able to advise firms a lot more effectively. My deputies and I are always giving feedback from London as well, so advice like “fewer, better deal descriptions rather than many one-sentence write-ups” has really made a big difference in the kind of submissions we’re seeing, as has practical advice on how to manage assembling those referee spreadsheets.
What are the key things that firms still seem to get wrong with their submissions?
One big thing a lot of firms can improve is the quality of their work highlight write-up. I recommend two paragraphs: one to briefly describe the nuts and bolts of the deal/case (and the firm’s role in it) and one to explain what was noteworthy about the work. A lot of firms also miss out when they don’t list the name of every lawyer who’s made a meaningful contribution to the work. We’re not just ranking lead partners, so it’s really helpful for us to know who’s on the team.
On the referee side, I think some firms are still treating the client list as something that’s meant to impress in and of itself, without considering the likelihood of response. My best suggestion is to go through the list of referees and ask “Are they going to respond and are they going to provide substantive, detailed feedback about our whole team?”
And more generally, what would you say are the elements of the submission process that firms still misunderstand?
I think a lot of firms are unsure about how we assess teams and individuals relative to each other. I’d probably think of it like a salad – you want all of the pieces to come together to make one great salad, but you also want individually tasty components. You wouldn’t want to serve someone one plate of spinach, one of croutons, one of shredded carrots, and one of tomatoes, so you should combine them all in an appropriate balance. We’ll appreciate the deliciousness of the whole salad while also noting how fresh the tomatoes were and how crispy the spinach is. So make sure your submission shows the best of your individuals when looked at deal-by-deal, but also the best of the team as a whole when looked at as an entire presentation.
Chambers has been pretty vocal about the importance of covering younger attorneys. How are you planning on making sure that happens?
The first thing is by spreading the word (as I did above, thanks for the opportunity!) that firms should be including the names of younger partners and associates on the work highlights in the submissions. Most importantly, the researchers are asking clients to give us in-depth feedback about the whole team. Once we’ve gotten a client’s comments on his/her relationship partner(s), the researchers drill deeper in order to get feedback on other members of the team, emphasising the rising stars. Often what looks to be just one person’s referral turns into feedback on half a dozen people or more.
Then, if we have enough feedback, plus some good work highlights, that’s an easy way to boost the numbers of ranked individuals with no opportunity cost to the senior attorneys who are the focus of the submission.
To what extent do the Chambers USA Awards for Excellence tie in with the directory research? I’ve seen a number of instances where the obvious Band 1 firm doesn’t win a practice award, for example…
That’s a great question, and one I get a lot! The awards really focus on the performance and progress of a firm over the preceding year, and honouring those firms that have – for one reason or another – stood out. It could be the practice’s outstanding client feedback, or an impressive victory in court, or winning a coveted client. Our Band 1 firms are always doing excellent work, and indeed many of them get honoured at the awards, but we also want to recognise the firms that have made great strides, so that could mean that you see a smaller firm get nominated in recognition of a landmark win that moved it up from Band 4 to Band 3.
What’s your current view of the legal directories market generally – still flourishing, or in need of modernisation and change?
I think that the strongest directories have ridden the crest of the directory wave and things have calmed down a bit from a couple years ago. We continue to use our client-driven research to stay on top of trends in order to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of in-house counsel, which is always our priority. For us, that means that the researchers take more time on client calls to do truly investigative research, finding out exactly what the in-house folks are looking for and what the individual strengths of their lawyers are. We’re also updating our website to reflect the depth of information we have access to, making it easier for clients to find exactly what they need by way of a sophisticated filter search.
The focus on up-and-comers is also critical here; clients have been clear in their desire to see more coverage in this area, and we’ve had many of them note how pleased they are that the researchers are probing into the full team on our calls. So long as we listen to clients and cover what they need, we’ll continue to evolve and provide them with the accurate, objective assessment that they’ve come to expect from us.