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Law Firms See Big Mess in Rankings, Awards

Photo by Davidlohr Bueso (Flickr/ Creative Commons)

On any given day, Richard Pinto walks into the office and finds one or more new surveys from a legal ranking or award waiting to be filled out.

“There’s so much rubbish out there that they’re burying the good ones,” said Pinto, who handles such recognitions as Shearman & Sterling’s global manager of directories. “Unfortunately it can be very easy to dismiss this process and say they’re all a waste of time.”

Pinto hopes to change this as the newly appointed chair of the Committee on Recognitions at the national industry group, Law Firm Media Professionals. His goal is to create a set of agreed upon “guidelines” that restore meaning to the rankings. His committee met for the first time in January, and is still defining the guidelines’ scope. Pinto aims to create a final report before the end of 2015.

Joshua Peck, president of the Law Firm Media Professionals and senior media relations manager of Duane Morris in Philadelphia, said the goal is to create a standard for rankings and awards that the legal industry can unite around. He wants Pinto to produce a document that PR professionals can take to the leadership at their law firm in order to make the case for which rankings and awards have merit.

“There truly is a proliferation of surveys and rankings,” Peck explained.

Law firms use rankings and awards to distinguish themselves from the competition when talking to clients and to prospective associates and lateral hires.

Allan Ripp, a consultant to law firms, said rankings grew out of legal directories such as Martindale-Hubbell and Chambers. Eventually, directories became rankings, and law firm partners started asking their communications professionals why they weren’t included in a list, Ripp said.

Today, there are more than 1,200 legal rankings, according to an estimate by Jaffe PR. Marketing and PR departments face heavy pressure to respond to the stream of surveys and often create teams – with as many as five full-time employees, oftentimes contractors – to deal with the onslaught.

While some rankings are based on objective criteria or empirical evidence, such as surveys of associates, the worst ones are handed out on a pay to play basis.

Adopting a strategy is important, said Arielle Lapiano, senior public relations manager at Paul Hastings, whose firm has decided to focus on associating itself with innovation. “There are some awards we feel really do that for us, like the Financial Times U.S. Innovative Lawyers award,” she said.

David Lat, managing editor of Above the Law, told Big Law Business:  “This is a metric for how well (PR professionals) are doing their job….They’ll say there are too many rankings out there, but at the end of the day, they are still chasing after them.”

Lat added he doesn’t think “in-house lawyers at the large companies are going to hire an attorney based solely on a ranking.”

However, there are some inherent upsides to the research process behind the rankings, even though they require a hefty time investment, said media relations consultant Claire Papanastasiou. “You really get some quality time with the partners and you get to know their practice,” Papanastasiou said.

Nicole Weber, law editor at Vault in New York, said she hopes the committee will categorize recognitions in different ways. “Some rankings are geared for clients, others for students or associates in their second or three year,” she said. “They can be very different in audience and approach.”

David Burgess, publishing director for the Legal 500 in London, said he welcomes the order. “We should be scrutinized; we should be questioned as to what value we bring to in-house counsel,” Burgess said.

“We need to bring a little bit of order to this Wild West,” Pinto said.

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