ABA report: No New Rules Needed for Law Firm Rankings

The following is a guest post by Roy Ginsburg

When U.S. News & World Report decided to rank law schools, this ranking – for better or worse — fundamentally changed the law school admissions process.

So when U.S. News announced that it would join forces with Best Lawyers to publish rankings of lawyers, that announcement got the ABA’s attention.  Would this be a game-changer in the already-controversial issue of law firm and lawyer rankings?  Apparently, the ABA thought it might – and felt compelled to examine the issue.

Based on this examination, the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 recently published a draft informational report on law firm rankings.

As an attorney coach, as well as legal marketing ethics counsel to the Super Lawyers publication, I was very interested to see what the ABA recommended.  The gist of the report is good news — no new rules are needed.  I couldn’t have said it any better myself, although I probably could have said it in fewer than 15 single-spaced pages!

Briefly, here’s why the ABA is fine with the status quo:

Despite extensive outreach seeking feedback from bar associations, disciplinary counsel and consumer groups, little input was received.  The feedback that was received indicated no problems with current rankings.

ABA evaluation of ranking methodologies would be very difficult.  First, since many rankings are conducted regionally, there are literally hundreds of lists.  Second, even limiting evaluation to national law firms could subject the ABA to accusations of preferential treatment or inappropriate targeting – or even litigation.  Third, conducting such an analysis would be prohibitively expensive.  Finally, were a methodology approved by a panel of experts, any analysis could open the door to claims of an ABA endorsement.

The existing Rule 7.1 – which prohibits misleading communications – is sufficient to regulate rankings.  Some states have already used the rule to define the boundaries on communicating ratings or rankings.  The credential cannot be based on a payment; in other words, “no pay to play.”  In addition, enough details about the ranking process must be included to put the ranking into an objective context.

Q & A for solos

How can a solo practitioner best make use of an Avvo rating of 10, a Martindale-Hubbell rating of A/V, a Super Lawyers inclusion — or some other accolade?  As a lawyer coach, here are some of the questions I am asked most frequently.

Q:        When a ranking or rating company wants me to promote my practice by purchasing ads, reprints or other adjunct materials, should I participate?

A:        It depends on your location, your practice area and the price.  As part of a strategic and targeted marketing plan, it can be an effective tool.  As a random vanity purchase, it can be a waste of money.

Q:        Should I mention the accolade on my website?

A:        Definitely.  It is free and will likely look impressive to someone scanning your website.  It is always a good idea to briefly describe what the accolade means.  Even better, provide a link to the selection-process description of the ranking or rating company’s website.

Q:        Which ethical concerns should I keep in mind?

A:        Under Rule 7.1, you cannot call yourself the “best” or “super.”  That is a disallowed comparison.  However, you can say that you are included in a particular list of “Best Lawyers” or “Super Lawyers.” That is a fact.

Roy Ginsburg is an attorney coach in the areas of business development, practice management and career development/transitions. He helps his nationwide clients achieve individualized practice goals and career satisfaction.

He is also a solo practitioner and practices in the area of legal marketing ethics. One of his clients is Super Lawyers magazine. A few years ago, he helped lead this publication’s successful defense in the “Opinion 39” case — when regulatory officials in the State of New Jersey attempted to prohibit lawyers from advertising their selection by the magazine.  www.royginsburg.com