What Do The Rankings Mean and Do They Help?
Law firm rankings are everywhere and can be confusing. Perhaps to you, they are nothing but daunting lists of numbers that on the surface tell you nothing particularly useful, except maybe which law firms are the best. But, even then you may wonder, what makes them the best, better than any local law firm of which you are aware? And how are such rankings even determined? Do they mean anything to me, either as a client or as a person seeking long-term employment as an attorney? This article sets out to help you better understand what law firm rankings are and why they matter and may benefit you, be it from the perspective of a client or an aspiring attorney.
How are law firms ranked?
Several reputable sources across the United States publish law firm rankings (Laws.com). They may vary in the criteria used to measure law firm quality. For instance, some rankings may focus purely on law firms’ financial health while others gauge a range of qualities, from retention of attorneys to general workplace happiness. Two of the most well-known law firm rankings are published annually by the U.S. News and World Report and The American Lawyer. The U.S. News and World Report rankings are based on “a rigorous evaluation process that includes the collection of client and lawyer evaluations, peer review from leading attorneys in their field, and review of additional information provided by law firms as part of the formal submission process” (from The U.S. News and World Report’s law firm ranking’s “Methodology”). In other words, no one quality determines which law firm reigns at the top; instead, the USNWR takes a more holistic approach to evaluating and ranking law firms. The American Lawyer, on the other hand, ranks the top 200 “highest grossing firms in the country” (Moody) and ranks them according to annual revenue, revenue trends, financial dominance and health, and so on (The American Lawyer).
Additionally, some sources rank law firms according to formulas with already widely established criteria. One of the most notable of these formulas is the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings (Laws.com). This system is unique in that one of the primary factors that it measures is the quality of individual lawyers, namely “ethical standards and professional ability” (Laws.com). With the help of the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings, law firms can be ranked according to the “best attorney’s individual rating.” Also referred to as the Martindale-Hubbell (MH) Evaluation, this formula assigns numerical values to qualities as abstract as “ethical standards” and “professional ability.” The formula breaks these two categories down even further into more specific sub-categories. First, a firm will be evaluated according to lawyers’ ethical standards, which encompass the following three main points: professional standards of conduct, reliability, and diligence (Laws.com). If the lawyers receive favorable scores for these sub-categories, they will move on to the next evaluation category, where they are rated according to professional ability. Professional ability pertains to the following five sub-categories: legal knowledge, analytical capabilities, judgment, communication skills, and legal experience (Laws.com).
Once the lawyers’ skills have been fully evaluated, a board of reviewers assigns a numerical value to each lawyer. The scoring is as follows (courtesy of Laws.com):
- AV Preeminent (4.5-5.0): This is the highest score possible and indicates exceptional ethical standards and professional capabilities. A lawyer with such a respectable score will have a positive effect on his/her law firm’s overall ranking.
- BV Distinguished (3.0-4.4): This ranking is also fairly respectable; however, a lawyer with this ranking may have fallen short of exceptional in at least one of the criterion evaluated. This rating applies to “most lawyers with respect and well known service within a metropolitan area” (Laws.com).
- Rate (1.0-2.0): This rating may seem dismal, but it may in fact be acceptable and often indicates that a lawyer has met the minimal standards of ethics and professional skills. In other words, a lawyer need not be ashamed of this rating. In fact, it is a common rating for new lawyers who still have yet to establish their own reputation. When this is the case, the ranking source will often note this in its official report.
Do law firm rankings really mean anything?
Some debate the usefulness and practicality of law firm rankings. The American Bar Association generally does not see law firm rankings as harmful to the legal market as a whole. In an article featured on Vault.com, Matt Moody examines some specific arguments for and against these rankings. In reviewing a video with law firm consultant Bruce MacEwen, Moody grapples first with an argument against rankings. Moody reports that MacEwen insists that law firm rankings are arbitrary because it leads peoples into thinking that “all [these] firms are the same” when they all tend to have their own culture, policies, and more. In contrast, in her own video, Editor-in-Chief of the American Lawyer, Kimberly Klemens, disagrees. She asserts that rankings have value because law firms, like other items that might be different can still be compared. She insists that even things that appear to be different can be compared according to similarities.
Ultimately, Moody agrees with Klemens. If law firms were not compared, after all, law firms would not be able to progress to be competitive to a limited pool of clients and clients would not have the resources necessary to make an informed decision when seeking legal counsel. Vault.com, too, publishes its own law firm rankings. These rankings measure fairly broad but useful criteria: prestige, quality of life, and diversity.
In the end, law firm rankings can be useful—but you have to understand why you yourself are looking at them and what you hope to gain from them. It is, of course, not ideal to cling to the rankings to the point that you cannot come to an informed decision on your own, using your own critical thinking skills and personal career goals as a guide. Like anything else, it is a single tool—and to build anything meaningful for yourself, you will require several, along with self-evaluation.
“Law Firm.” Law Firm Rankings. Laws.com, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
Moody, Matt. “Law Firm Rankings Are Meaningful.” | Vault Blogs | Vault.com. Vault.com Inc., 09 Sept. 2015. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
“U.S. News – Best Lawyers.” Best Law Firms –. U.S. News and World Report, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
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Are you a wondering how law firm rankings should influence your search? Do you have a preference for a certain type of law firm work environment? Would you like some help in working through these tips? If so, contact a Career Counselor with Lexacount Search’s Career Consulting Services. Or, if you are seeking new opportunities, learn more about open legal industry positions with a Search Consultant from Lexacount Search’s Legal Group.