Although rankings have in principle triggered a very positive development in the legal industry and represent a high added value for all target groups (see chapter 1.2), there is also some potential for improvement within the ranking industry.
“Didn’t we just do that?” – A question that is often asked in law firms in connection with rankings. In fact, I recommend to my clients to have all ranking tasks done only with the help of project management tools such as Microsoft © Project.
Whereas in the past these were manageable time commitments – such as four submission deadlines per year, for which you had to set aside a total of about three weeks – rankings today have become so extensive that you have to set aside time for them throughout the year. Large law firms are particularly affected by this. It is one thing to prepare a submission for Labour Law Zurich, for example – you have to take time for that, too, of course, but the effort is still justifiable in relation to the available resources and, above all, the internal law firm policy goals. But it becomes much more complicated when there are four or so different areas of law: Which cases should be selected for whom? Who has filed the documents relating to Causa X where? Can we file a case in several jurisdictions? No? Then we take Causa X for my area of law … etc.
Approx. 15h net working time per submission per area of law.
Even if law firms set up their own departments for rankings and/or bring in external consultants and service providers, the effort is still great. If you want to handle a field of law cleanly and professionally, you have to spend about 15 hours net working time on a submission and the associated client referees. And this only includes the pure writing and research time as well as the often necessary translation into English. The time spent asking for information and reaching law firm partners is often several times that amount. Also to be taken into account are often multiple feedback rounds, at the end of which new feedback is given, which again requires a reworking of the submissions.
Then, of course, there are the client interviews. It is no problem to ask a client to take time once a year to answer a ranking question about working with the firm. However, the same client will understandably be less willing to take time for, say, four surveys a year.
The whole procedure leads to an understandable permanent stress for many law firms, which can only be avoided through correspondingly efficient organisation – see chapter 6.3.
Choose deadlines better
It is hard enough to collect feedback from busy lawyers during regular working hours. Nevertheless, there are rankings that set their deadlines during the holiday season. Deadlines in August or – even worse – in December do little to promote a relaxed approach to the subject matter. Ironically, the “availability of law firm partners” is often cited as an argument for setting such deadlines. Of course, partners are not 100% busy with clients during these periods – but that is no reason to rush into well-deserved relaxation periods. However, such poorly chosen deadlines can usually be avoided through appropriate organisation – see chapter 6.4.
Picking up clients better
It is already a very delicate undertaking to ask clients to take time for interviews that only benefit their firm. It is all the more serious when clients are not interviewed correctly. Unfortunately, it happens again and again that rankings ask clients during their holidays or give them very tight deadlines for answering questionnaires. It can also happen that telephone interviews are too lengthy or the questioning deviates from the actual topic.
You can read about how to deal with such developments successfully in chapter 6.5.
An incomprehensible evaluation or non-inclusion in a ranking naturally contributes the most to disgruntlement. After all the work that has gone into it, it is difficult for law firms to comprehend if the targeted ranking has not been achieved. Of course, it also happens that law firms simply make bad submissions and build up false expectations. It is only correct that inferior submissions do not have the desired effect, because otherwise all the extensive submissions prepared by other law firms with a lot of effort would be devalued and the market presentation would also be distorted.
Apart from such cases, however, there are always good submissions that do not lead to an increase in the ranking or to a new inclusion in the ranking. In both cases, the rankings often refer to poor feedback from client referees. This is, of course, unsatisfactory for law firms, as they can neither exert pressure on clients nor do they want to, and ultimately the impression is created that the submissions themselves are pointless. What is the point of collecting all the documents if at the end of the day it is the client interviews that decide? – Unfortunately, this question falls short. Rankings argue that submissions are the absolute basis for being considered for a good ranking in the first place. Client interviews are then the fine control, so to speak, that decides on rank 1 or 2, for example.
You can read how to achieve the best client feedback in chapter 6.5.
A special case is the aforementioned initial inclusion in rankings. Here, directories are particularly tricky. As a rule, you have to submit an exceptionally good submission, including client referees, in order to be included in the ranking on the first attempt. The reason for this is the deliberate long-term evaluation of the market. If a law firm were to be included in the ranking, e.g. in second place out of four, after only one good year, it would have to be removed from the ranking again if it had a bad year or did not submit a submission in the following year. This would make the rankings spongy and too volatile.
So the rankings check which law firms perform consistently well over several periods before including new entries. Of course, this procedure is also a means of keeping law firms in line so that they participate annually and do not drop out – on balance, however, it is not devoid of solid logic. Nevertheless, it might be advisable not to be too harsh here and to make more differentiated decisions.
Reduce pressure on law firms to participate
Since rankings have become so popular, existing and potential clients, reference partners and young lawyers often wonder why law firm X is “not there”. Of course, no law firm is expected to be in every ranking, but large law firms in particular are expected not only to participate, but also to be at the top of at least the most popular rankings.
The smaller a law firm is, the more this pressure decreases – or at least that is how it used to be. In the meantime, a great many law firm boutiques are already represented in the rankings and even one-person law firms have moved into top rankings.
Even small law firms are feeling the pressure to participate in rankings more and more.
This development reflects the competitive pressure within the legal industry. The question is of course justified whether this pressure has not also been intensified by the rankings, because they introduced a means of creating weighted market transparency for the first time. To a certain extent this is true – on the other hand, the rankings would probably not have been so popular if the competitive pressure had been less and clients had been plentiful for all market participants.
Making rankings better and more serious
This point is by far the most important at the moment. Successful developments of a product or service always find imitators. As long as the competitors act seriously and competently, there is nothing to be said against it from the client’s point of view. As is well known, competition stimulates business and gives customers access to cheaper and better services.
Unfortunately, the ranking industry has seen an increase in questionable rankings that do a poor job of collecting data or simply give away “awards” to the highest bidder (“pay for play”). Law firms quite unexpectedly receive an email saying that someone has decided that the firm should get an award for area of law X. I, too, as a business consultant, am not a member of the legal profession. Even I, as a management consultant who does not practise law, have received an email from such a “ranking” congratulating me on winning an award in an area of law!
The desire of some law firms to appear in a ranking is so great, however, that even these providers have a lively influx. However, this damages the entire ranking industry and causes confusion among all target groups. Although some rankings are now viewed critically, law firms still fall for dubious providers. The pressure to have no or too few “awards” or “ranking results” on the website is often perceived as too great.
Unfortunately, this also affects the clients. Smaller firms in particular rarely conduct large-scale research on the quality of ranking providers on a law firm’s website for cost reasons. Mostly, the client looks through such awards on four criteria:
Does the award fit my legal problems? Is the area of law in which I need advice and/or the industry in which I work represented?
Ranking: Where does the law firm stand in the rankings or in comparison to its competitors?
Recency: How long ago was the last win/ranking?
Quantity: How many different awards from how many different providers have been won?
What could happen, you might think. – What can and does happen is that good rankings, which invest far more effort and costs than “pay for play” providers, fall into this rut and either disappear altogether or at least lose quality. The first victim of such an effect was, in my opinion, PLC Which Lawyer? – a case I describe in detail in chapter 1.6.7.
It goes without saying that clients who make careless choices can end up buying bad legal advice and suffer damage as a result.
The end of PLC Which Lawyer?
PLC Which Lawyer? was often mentioned in the same breath as Chambers and Legal 500, as one of “those rankings you already need”. In April 2013, PLC Which Lawyer? simply went offline.
Although the ranking was seen as important, most of my clients have always viewed PLC Which Lawyer? results with particular scepticism. In particular, the combined results across all areas of law could not always be understood. The mapping of the respective country markets was also criticised.
However, PLC Which Lawyer? was also and above all conspicuous for one thing: the constant demand for advertisements for parallel sister publications. So, in addition to the main publication, which contained all areas of law and all countries, there were additional publications from the same publisher, which additionally focused specifically on one area of law and sometimes also on one country. I usually advised my clients not to participate because it hardly makes sense to get bogged down in side issues when there is a main reference work anyway.
The reason for this ‘recycling’ of data was, of course, the desire for more business – probably also because there was increasing pressure from the pseudo-rankings. When PLC Which Lawyer? was shut down, a shakeout did take place, but unfortunately at the wrong end. Despite all its drawbacks, the ranking did have some control, and especially the “one fits all” table of all areas of law for one country had ensured a very quick overview.