Lawyers work hard and their successes should be celebrated. Clients have a hard time self-evaluating the potential quality of legal services before hiring a lawyer. Both these statements are true; neither is a good reason for Canadian law firms to collectively spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours facilitating for-profit private lawyer rankings. This column argues that large Canadian law firms (and boutiques that serve similar clients) should collectively agree to stop participating in for-profit private lawyer ranking services.
Currently, there are multiple prominent lawyer ranking services that profile lawyers in large law firms/boutiques as well as the firms themselves. Among the rankings available through these services are:
- Future Star
- Rising Star
- Litigation Star
- Highly Recommended
- Most Frequently Recommended
- Consistently Recommended
- Repeatedly Recommended
- Recognized Practitioner
- Recognized Lawyer
- Senior Statesperson
- Lawyer of the Year
- One to Watch
- Up and Coming
- One of Leading 500 Lawyers in Canada
- One of Top 50 Trial Lawyers in Canada
- One of Top 50 Women in Litigation
- Band 1
- Band 2
- Band 3
- Band 4
- Band 5
Several times a year, new rankings of lawyers and law firms are publicly released by different rankings companies. Law firms then generally issue press releases announcing the ranks that they and their lawyers have received. It is not uncommon, depending on the ranking service, for a law firm to announce that a large majority of partners in the firm have been ranked. Recently, a large national law firm announced that over 280 of its lawyers had been recognized by a particular service. It should be noted that, even though so many lawyers end up being ranked through these services, concerns have been raised that some demographics (women, racialized and indigenous lawyers) are not fairly or adequately profiled in certain ranking services.
My point in writing this column, however, is not to advocate for reforms but rather to argue that the whole endeavour of for-profit lawyer and law firm ranking should be abandoned. In short, I argue that the purported benefits of such rankings – (1) providing information about the quality of lawyers to potential clients or other lawyers for referral purposes and (2) providing a way to recognize the hard and excellent work done by lawyers – are not worth the enormous resources that law firms put into for-profit private ranking services.
How much money are we talking about? As private businesses, law firms are under no obligation to disclose how much they spend annually on lawyer rankings and they have no incentive do so. It is reasonable, however, to estimate that millions if not tens of millions are spent in Canada each year. What is behind this estimate? It is certainly not the case that the rankings services that I am talking about here are “pay-to-play”. Lawyers do not and cannot directly buy a ranking. But law firms indirectly give a large amount of money to ranking services. This is obvious in the sense that the whole raison d’être of these companies is to make money by ranking lawyers.
In what ways do law firms give money to lawyer ranking services? Included among the things that law firms buy are: web or print advertisements, plaques, trophies, the inclusion of law firm or lawyer profiles on the ranking service’s website, publicity brochures detailing the law firm’s rankings, sponsorship of award events, tables at award events and licensed use of logos. The price tags for these items vary but it should be noted that some cost tens of thousands of dollars. Additionally, some ranking services have historically offered law firms the opportunity to provide direct financial support as a form of endorsement while emphasizing that not providing such support will not impact a firm’s rankings.
There is also a tremendous amount of staff and lawyer time dedicated to nominating lawyers for these rankings and subsequently marketing nominees. A 2017 article in the Washington Post reported that, in the United States, “[l[aw firms spend $157,000 annually on average in employee time and expenses to complete awards submissions…For larger firms, the average is $691,000, with one reporting spending $5 million.”
Clearly, part of the issue here is that are too many rankings. If the point is to use rankings to provide information to potential clients about what lawyers are “good” lawyers, a single lawyer does not need to be able to announce that he or she is: a Best Lawyer in Canada, is classified as a Band 1 lawyer, is a Litigation Star, is a Leading Lawyer and is Most Frequently Recommended and all while working in a firm that is Most Frequently Recommended and Highly Recommended. (The rankings in the preceding sentence are rankings that one lawyer in Ontario has, in fact, collected)
But, again, my objection is more fundamental: what is the point of having any for-profit private rankings at all? From my limited experience practicing on Bay Street and from talking to others, I have heard no one claim that these rankings are an essential or important source of information to potential clients. The clients of the lawyers and law firms who are profiled simply don’t generally make decisions about what lawyers to hire by leafing through various ranking publications. There may be the rare case of a client who does reference such publications but this is not the norm by any measure.
To date, I have only heard of two plausible and narrow use cases for private lawyer rankings: (1) rankings can be helpful touchpoints when Canadian lawyers refer other Canadian lawyers to those outside the country; and (2) sometimes rankings are used in slide decks or other “promotional” material when law firms make retainer bids. Neither of these use scenarios seems to be worth the vast amount of time and money spent.
I absolutely agree that as a profession, we should look for opportunities to celebrate the hard work that lawyers do. But this can be done without funding an entire rankings industry. Law firms can take the time and resources to engage in internal celebrations. Broad-based lawyer organizations like the Canadian Bar Association and law societies already have awards programs as do more practice area-specific organizations like the Advocates Society and the Canadian Criminal Lawyers Association. I love seeing lawyers recognized and hearing about their work through these avenues.
It is true that as private businesses law firms can spend their money they please. And, for many of the law firms involved, spending a few hundred thousand dollars on private rankings isn’t really a big budget line item, relatively speaking. But why not do something more inspired or worthwhile? We know that articling and summer student positions can be very hard to come by – why not dedicate this money to training more lawyers? Why not increase funding of legal services for marginalized populations, such as Pro Bono Ontario? Donate to a charity or charities of the firm’s choice? Institute a small salary increase for the firm’s staff? Even buying more art for the office seems to be a better use.
From my discussions with other lawyers on this topic, one of the main impediments to diverting resources away from private rankings is the pressure to participate if everyone else is participating. As a senior litigation lawyer recently stated on Twitter, “Honestly it’s exhausting and a ton of work. But as long as everyone else is playing the game, it’s hard to ignore it.” So what we seem to have here is a collective action problem. No one really wants to do this, but everyone does, because they don’t want to be the only ones left out.
So how about a collective solution to this collective action problem? Law firms could band together and promote the fact that they have stopped participating in lawyer rankings (or even just some of them), and create a fund to support public interest causes. It would free up time from lawyers and staff time to be put to more productive uses. It could even reverse the peer pressure dynamic: instead of feeling pressure to participate, firms may suddenly feel pressure not to participate. With rankings being prevalent in legal profession culture around the world, this may just be wishful thinking. But sometimes wishes come true! Until then, I’ll grumpily await the announcement of the next round of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious lawyers.