Time to call time on the directories?

With the publication of the latest editions of The Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners’ Directory of the Legal Profession, I am, as ever, receiving calls from valued clients, contacts and friends baffled, puzzled, and in some cases irate, at the pronouncements of these two weighty tomes.

Let me first declare an interest, so that you can put what I am about to say in context: I edited The Legal 500 in 1996 and 1997 and am responsible for the thematic (as opposed to alphabetical) construction of the editorial of that publication, an innovation I am proud to say remains intact to this day, and which I believe better reflects the interconnected nature of the sector-led approach law has increasingly taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am generally positive about the directories. In the absence of anything else, they provide a useful guide for in-house counsel and lay clients alike, and a vital guide for practices attempting to analyse the competition.

With such a broad spectrum of firms and practices to analyse, the directories have a difficult task; and, of course, you simply cannot please all the people all the time. That the damned things weigh 5kg apiece and still only manage to use a tiny, tiny fraction of the material they are given is a testament to just how mammoth – and underestimated – a task it is.

The researchers are, usually, young and sometimes inexperienced, though generally clever enough to pick things up quite quickly. They virtually never research just one section, so may be jumping from corporate tax in London to agricultural law in the North-West and then on to five or six other disparate areas in a single day. They have to wade through acres of submissions, pleas and threats – yes, I even got threats… (and one attempted bribe, as it happens!) – from law firms the length and breadth of the land, not to mention barristers and foreign law firms.

I can, personally, vouch for just how much work goes into them, not least to the tiered tables, often referred to as the league tables, which are my main gripe and the source of most consternation, frustration and bafflement among my lawyer clients and friends.

In an increasingly sophisticated legal services market, the directories should not be getting this quite as wrong as they seem to quite as often, and, in so doing, make a terrible rod for their own backs.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. Because I act for many law firms, I am not going to even say which tables these are, as I would not want a scintilla of churlishness to creep into any researcher’s thought process for next year (such is the power of the directories…!!)

Part of the problem with many of the tables is that they are comparing chalk and cheese. I am presuming that a buyer of legal services will have a fair idea of whether they want Chalk & Chalk or Cheese & Co before they buy, but the tables, and the necessarily miniscule amount of editorial which follows them, often give them no help whatever.

 

Example One: Section A contains one of my client firms, in the fourth tier of the table of one of the directories, a fact that annoys them considerably, not least because it seems to defy not just reason but the laws of physics. In it, their practice, which numbers in excess of 30 partners, is bracketed with, among others, three particular firms which have, respectively, two-and-a-half-to-three, four, and, at a push, four partners. Now, the difficulty for the researcher is that the small practices would consider themselves to be ‘better’ in terms of quality than my client, ie they make more money. Certainly, this is the only measure in which they are ‘better’, because their client list, spread of work and record of work done, are all markedly inferior to those of my client, certainly as far as my background research, not to mention my own market knowledge, would suggest. However, I fully accept this might all feel pretty subjective, so I thought I would try to be objective about it. I took an average Revenue Per Partner for all the firms considered and, to make things fair, bumped up the smaller firms to three, four and four partners apiece. I calculated that the smaller firms will be generating £4m-£6.5m from their practices – and that’s being generous. I know for a fact that my client’s practice is worth in excess of £30m. And this qualifies them all to be in the same tier of the table?? We all know  that size isn’t everything (apparently), but ‘C’MON!’, as the Americans would say. I have to keep checking we are still on Earth, because part of my brain is screaming: “what planet are these guys on???”

Example Two: Section B of the other directory should by all rights contain the firm where one of my very good friends is managing partner. Only it doesn’t. This is the second year this excellent niche firm – which is rated, albeit not highly enough, in the other directory – has made submissions to appear in what is, after all, its speciality field. I would bet a month’s revenue that if you were to ask ten lawyers in this firm’s specialist and geographical areas to name the top local firms who were good at this type of work, they would all name this firm. I know for a fact that its revenues in this field are in excess of some of the entire firms in the lower rungs of the relevant table. With a DOZEN partners specialising in the field and a rack of household name clients AND its competitor rating the firm, (albeit not highly enough, we’ll talk…) the omission not only looks careless, it looks obdurate, perverse even.

Example Three: Section C of one of the directories has elevated an excellent firm to top tier this year in one particular area I have just researched to death for another client. I can confirm that while this newly-elevated practice is indeed excellent, and regarded as such by clients, it acts for four of the Top 50 clients in this field and has just one partner – not even one-and-a-half, but one – specialising in the legal discipline in question. Meanwhile, one of the other top firms in this field, relegated mysteriously this year, acts for 16 of the Top 50, including four of the top ten, clients in this field with at least eight, and arguably more, partners on the case. Whoever is doing that sole partner’s PR, I want to know.

To sum up, the major directories do serve an important purpose, but they are walking a fine line.

The lesson law firms are learning – and painfully – is that life these days is about delivering value. Before the 1990s, in a market where there was nothing to assist the buyers of legal services, the directories blazed a trail which forever transformed the UK legal profession and which has been replicated around the world. John Pritchard and Michael Chambers deserve a huge amount of credit for being pioneers in the field, and the professional editors they employed as they bowed out have, to their credit, tightened up and refined the process. For years, they delivered enormous value to the marketplace.

But the gains are now old news. None of the egregious failures I have mentioned above – not value judgements but simple, empirical failures by any reasonable measure – is excusable in this day and age.

Further, it undermines the very purpose of the directories, to assist clients in buying legal services. In none of these three examples are clients being served by the frankly bizarre conclusions.
Many of my law firm clients are so frustrated by this kind of thing they would rather pull out of the process altogether, and even many of those who do well, but who spend hundreds of thousands of pounds a year on them, would cheerfully ditch the directories if they thought they could get away with it.

I, for my part, try to persuade my clients to keep in the process as I believe the benefits usually outweigh any possible downsides, but when the mistakes are this bad, defending the directories has begun to undermine my credibility, and frankly, I’m sick of it.

The answers are out there, and the directories know very well what they are, but are happily profiting from the current situation, so why should they change?

I do not plan to encourage my clients to withdraw from the directories – far from it – but I do believe it is time to up the ante in terms of justifying, both to the law firms which pay for them and the clients which use them, just how their seemingly mystical insights actually work in practice: how do they decide, what criteria do they use, and, if it differs from table to table, tell us that too, because at the moment, it is pretty opaque.

Publish and survive, I say.

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