As I write this, deadlines for submission to various legal ranking directories are fast approaching. This one is a survey where you rank lawyers in your field. That one is an interview where you’re asked who (after you, of course) is the best in your field. Another asks to whom you would refer a client if you couldn’t act for that client. Their timetables, criteria, and requirements are all different. Lawyers find the submission process laborious, unproductive, and frustrating. However, they are even more frustrated when they see their competitors’ names ranked above their own names (or worse, not seeing their own names in the rankings.) Directory Submissions are the Marketing Department’s worst nightmare after the dreaded Holiday Cards and just above Award Nominations.
It’s fair enough to ask why we bother. Aren’t all these directories just money-making ego-boosters? Or do some of them, at least, provide clients with a measure of comparison between law firms, practice groups and lawyers? And if they do, are they a means of building reputation, both for the firm and for individual lawyers?
It’s a nebulous thing, reputation. Basically, it involves what other people say about you. For business development, you want the best things to be said about you by your prospective clients’ other professional advisers, like their lenders, insurers, and accountants. It’s really sweet, too, when lawyers who face you across the courtroom or the deal table admit that you know your stuff. If your ideal client is in your immediate vicinity where you don’t have a lot of competition, then getting ranked in directories probably isn’t high on your marketing to-do list. Stay in close touch with your local bankers, insurance brokers, and accountants—and you’ll do just fine if you do good work.
But law is no longer just a local service. This year we saw the first of Canada’s law firms (Ogilvy Renault) join an international firm (Norton Rose). If you want international work, or top-of-the-line specialized work, or if there are many lawyers jostling for the same clients, that’s when a third party endorsement comes in handy. It’s also a handy card to play when attracting an up-and-comer to your practice group (“Our group is ranked in…”).
I usually explain reputation management as the third leg of the stool, where the first leg is business development (bringing in new clients or new work from existing clients) and the second is retention strategies (more about this in another column). Managing reputation supports business development and client retention. Like every other marketing initiative, it needs to be thought through strategically, in relation to a business goal. Don’t just respond to every “Congratulations! You have been named a Leading Lawyer in…” email that you receive (many of these are little more than scams, but that’s another topic entirely). Proactively decide if being ranked in a particular directory will support your goals as a firm, evaluate what it takes to become ranked, and then decide whether the effort is warranted. If it is, build it in to your annual marketing plan and measure the results.
A spinoff value of directory submissions is that lists of representative work are kept current and lawyers’ profiles are updated in order to meet deadlines. These are core marketing materials that can be used in many different ways, from websites to proposals.
So why not just put all your efforts into your website? Well, if you’re going to do only one thing to manage your reputation, building an interesting website that clearly describes how you solve clients’ problems would be that one thing. But in today’s competitive marketplace, one thing is unlikely to help you keep pace with the competition.
Reputation is enhanced by speaking at conferences, writing articles, and playing an active role in industry associations. And guess what? All of those things form part of your website content, proposal content—and your directory submission.
I frequently hear the comment: “Clients don’t choose their law firm from a directory.” As I said at the beginning, clients check with their other advisors when deciding on a law firm. But remember, they have to justify their decisions to their management. It doesn’t hurt to be able to say of your choice “and they’re also ranked in…”
Ultimately it all comes back to the fact that clients make the choice. And just in case you think I’ve been paid off by the directories, let me finish with an example of clients using an objective measure of practice experience. In debrief interviews after submission of proposals, I always ask clients how the law firm got onto their list of firms to be invited. In the last three interviews, the answer has been the same: “We sent the RFP to everyone who was listed as a Certified Specialist in this practice area.” If you’ve ever wondered whether it was worth getting your Certified Specialist designation as a way of standing out from the crowd, there’s your answer.