Legal 500 … still as relevant as ever?

Social media has been swamped with Legal 500 chatter this week, so firstly I’ll add my congratulations to all the individuals and firms named in this year edition.

Long has it been a listing that firms have wanted to achieve, and judging by the social media volume it’s significance is being prized as highly as ever. But we are in a changing and increasingly fast-moving world, with information overload everywhere you look, and so I’ve been wondering whether ratings in directories are really still that relevant in 2018.

A useful resource?

This is the twentieth Legal 500 edition I’ve read, which is a sobering thought in itself! I don’t have a legal background or qualification but I steered my way into legal recruitment in 1999 because I was genuinely interested in the sector. Websites were a rarity at that time, and I was heavily reliant on Legal 500 and Chambers to get a base understanding of who did what and how well. We had thick paper volumes in the office, and I’d pore through previous years editions to spot brands and individuals as part of thoroughly researching my market, and I found it fascinating.

However, I vividly remember speaking to a lawyer (I’ll call him ‘Bob’) about his field and what he wanted to do. He very clearly told me “some of the best people in what I do are not listed in the directories, we don’t really care about them”. I was shocked. As someone learning by the day it was akin to blasphemy against the teachings of a holy book. But it was a valuable lesson coming from a very honest candidate – there’s more to assessing a firm than its listings.

On another occasion I had a client lunch with a Practice Director, and I congratulated him on the firms listings that year. It touched a bit of a nerve as it turned out that his firm were going to significant effort and financial expense to be listed, to the point they were wondering if it was actually worth it. That was another revelation as, in my innocence, I had not considered that there might be a cost to inclusion. It also shed a different light on Bob’s comments as his employer was a ‘high street firm’ and were definitely very mindful of managing their costs and where they should direct their resources. Naturally then not every firm is going to be in contention, by choice or circumstance.

The basis of assessment

What opinion an individual holds of directory listings is clearly a very personal thing, but until now I’d never thought to check out the basis of rankings and listings themselves. So I’ve looked online and found the following on Legal 500, which I thought I’d share…

“Areas that are considered include (but are not limited to):

  • Very strong technical ability available for the most complex and innovative work
  • Most prestigious clients
  • Individuals with the contacts at, and credibility with, the top clients
  • In-depth capability beyond star partners
  • Capacity for the biggest transactions/cases
  • Market share
  • Historical track record on top deals/cases
  • Clear investment for the future in a particular practice area
  • Progress made with acquiring new clients/market share
  • Strength in associated areas – e.g. can an M&A department undertake competition work to an equal standard?
  • Reputation for handling complex, innovative deals
  • Capacity to handle all client requirements in an area – e.g. international offices/connections
  • Commitment to IT and the use of IT to improve client services
  • Perception in the market.”

I found that interesting reading and a pretty broad ranging set of criteria, though perhaps lacking in content for a Millennial audience. I presume these criteria will grow to reflect an evolving readership in coming years, as 20 years ago the ‘IT commitment’ was most likely not in that list of considerations.

It is certainly a point of market reassurance that firms and individuals will be assessed so broadly, and will therefore celebrate meeting a certain grade. The public recognition of that competency in an annual revised edition clearly is a popular concept with longevity.

Who is it really for?

The target audience of Legal 500, as declared in the editor’s note (online), seems to be those buying legal services, and also firms who want to benchmark themselves against their peers.

Now, I have spoken to a number of partners, and the majority appreciate that their firms want strong rankings and ratings and are proud of their standing. However, all privately seem to believe that clients don’t procure legal services based on directory listings, and that lawyers aren’t interested in what directories say when it comes to comparing themselves to competitors. If this is the case then who is getting benefit from the directories? Why are firms still committing their resources to be featured?

For certain, I know that junior candidates do consider firm rankings when shortlisting their options and deciding whether to apply to one brand over another. I’ve heard such as “I need to be in a Tier 1 firm, and certainly don’t want a firm any lower than Tier 2” many times from NQs, which demonstrates that the vertical nature of the legal services market is particularly prevalent in the mind set of those relatively new to the legal profession. And directories make the hierarchy of the legal market particularly visible, and reinforce it through rankings. So as a candidate attraction tool at the junior end it’s hard to beat Legal 500 and Chambers.

And the other obvious market is recruiters, be they contingent or search, though you’d hope a ’head hunter’ (woooh, the mystique!) would be better informed and connected than to simply shortlist from an online directory. At Brooke Thornham I’d encourage new recruiters to read up on all they can and to that end the Legal 500 and Chambers are particularly useful resources in learning. But I’d still expect my consultants to rationalise what they read and to hedge it against market noise and first hand testimony from candidates and clients as I have done over the years. Candidates working with a legal recruiter want insight and advantage, not simply a regurgitation of what they can read for themselves, and that added perspective is what we offer to those using us.

If a candidate is named then I’ll always drop that in when presenting them to market – it carries weight, to a degree. So, if for no other reason than from a recruitment perspective, the legal directories have a readership and an audience demand, and I hope they will continue to be produced annually.

As for clients – well, I am not a lawyer looking to win clients, so I’ve no take on whether any firms see tangible benefit. I would suspect a directory listing has become quite a generic scoring point, another ‘box ticked’, a bit like having a website and IT/case management systems. It is desirable to have a listing because if it isn’t there then perhaps it is a point of vulnerability. But from the partners I speak to it won’t be a clincher when it comes to securing client instructions.

Here to stay.

Whatever your view, it is clear that Legal 500 and other directories are performing a function which law firms want, and so they will continue.

And where is Bob in 2018? Well, Bob is now a named individual in a Tier 1 ranked firm in the Legal 500, and he’ll have been instrumental in securing that position. I haven’t been in contact with Bob for some years so I don’t know whether he’s changed his views in the last two decades, but I suspect that when it comes to the market perception of the value of ranking and listings things perhaps haven’t changed so much after all.

Congratulations once again to those listed in the 2019 edition, and best wishes to those aspiring to being included next year and beyond – you’ll have stiff competition.

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