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Episode 81: Legal Rankings – To Submit or Not to Submit with Megan Braverman, Principal at Berbay Marketing & Public Relations

Sharon:    Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today my guest is Megan Braverman, Principal at Berbay Marketing and Public Relations which specializes in working with law firms. Megan has extensive experience working with a complex web of legal rankings. Clients often turn to her for her thoughts about which rankings to pursue. We’ll learn more today about legal rankings. Megan, thank you for being here today.

Megan:     Thank you for having me, Sharon.

Sharon:    So glad—oh my god, this is such an important subject, legal rankings, and such a confusing subject. Can you first introduce yourself and tell us what your role at Berbay is how it involves legal rankings?

Megan:     Sure, so as you had mentioned, I’m the Principal of Berbay and I’ve been with the firm for over a decade now and very simply, we help law firms and lawyers get ranked on these lists and you’re right; it’s very confusing. There’s a lot out there. So, we help undo the clutter, figure out which ones to pursue on how to get on those lists.

Sharon:    As you were saying, there are so many different types of legal rankings. Can you tell us a little bit about the different types of rankings there are?

Megan:     Sure, so at Berbay, we keep track of all the legal rankings that exist. We call it our list of lists actually and right now, our list of lists encompasses over two hundred legal awards which is a lot, so you must sift through the quarter. I mean you’re not going to go after 200+ rankings. There are really four types of law firm rankings. One is global, Chambers and Partners, Legal 500. These are highly competitive rankings.  You can think of them as a forever effort because they’re so competitive. You really have to go after them year after year. The second category of rankings is voting-based rankings. Think Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers. These require people to vote for you in order for you to be ranked. The challenge there is a lot of those rankings have a no-solicitation policy. You have to participate in a several-month process. So, it’s much different from the global rankings. The third tier or type of ranking is national. These are Law360, National Law Journal. These are usually legal outlets that put out their own legal rankings. They’re also very competitive. They’re matters-based so, they choose lawyers and law firms based on the kind of work they do. The fourth piece is local. So, in Los Angeles for example this would be the Daily Journal, Los Angeles Business Journal, but if you’re located elsewhere, you’ll have state or regional outlets that have legal rankings. Again, these are based on matters, so these outlets are selecting firms and lawyers that have worked on precedent-setting cases or interesting matters over the past twelve months. Those are sort of the four types of ranking.

Sharon:    O.K., that helps to sift through it a little bit. What are the red flags that should make a lawyer, or a marketing director run in the other direction when they see a ranking if they’re considering it?

Megan:     Good question. As you know—and I’m sure a lot of lawyers and law firms and marketing directors who are listening in, they probably get solicitations or e-mails from a ranking that they’ve never heard of and they have to figure out whether out it’s legitimate. One of the things that’s an immediate red flag is when you get an e-mail and it says, “Congratulations, Sharon Berman, you’ve been ranked as an XYZ lawyer in this practice area.” If you never submitted anything, but you got ranked, that’s usually the first red flag. Very rarely are you going to get ranked on something that you just never submitted anything, that no one ever told you about. The second red flag is pay-to-play. There are a few pay-to-play rankings out there, but they’re really the exception, not the rule. Typically, when you see something like, “You’ve been ranked,” but it requires a membership fee or you have to pay to get on the list, we almost always avoid those because those are some of the red flags to look out for.

Sharon:    O.K., that sounds important. What are the factors that a lawyer or a marketing director should consider when deciding whether to submit for a certain legal ranking? What should they consider?

Megan:     This may seem simple, but I always say this over and over again: You have to read the criteria. Each outlet that has these different lists, they have very specific criteria of how and who they’re ranking, so for example, the kind of matters. A lot of outlets will have let’s say a specific practice area, for example intellectual property. Well, if you’re not an intellectual property law firm, you shouldn’t submit. The size of the firm—sometimes size does matter. They have these lists that really are based on the number of lawyers that are at a law firm. Age—they have a lot of rising stars lists, so just be aware that if they require an age, you will be completely eliminated if you don’t meet that requirement. A lot of lists have consecutive rankings, meaning a lawyer or a law firm can be ranked year after year, but there are a lot of rankings which will not do that. Look at their criteria and make sure that if you were ranked in the previous year that they might not rank you the next year because of their criteria-and client references. Chambers and Partners, Legal 500, the ones I mentioned earlier, they require you to submit client references or people that know the caliber of your work and they’re going to contact them. If you’re not comfortable with putting forth clients, then you shouldn’t put forth a submission. So really read the criteria and see if you’re fit and see if you’re comfortable with submitting what they need.

The other factors you should consider when deciding to submit: you have to set realistic expectations. Now, we’ve worked with a lot of different law firms who have great matters and they work on fabulous cases, but sometimes they have a bad year and in the last twelve months, they really don’t have a lot to put forth. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t submit, but you need to have realistic expectations and remember that maybe this year I don’t warrant inclusion or maybe these last twelve months weren’t a good standpoint of what I usually do. Look at previous lists, that’s also a great way to set realistic expectations because you can see who they select, the type of law firms and lawyers they selected. Oftentimes there are certain lists that favor larger firms versus smaller firms. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go after it, but you need to be aware of that because if you’re a boutique law firm and they’re ranking all of the large law firms, it’s a slim chance that you’ll get on the list.

Sharon:    I know sometimes when you say being realistic, realistic that it might take a couple of years to actually—two, three or more years of submissions before you actually make a dent.

Megan:     Right, yeah, that’s very true. I mean a lot of these lists are very competitive and if this is your first time submitting, typically the people that are reading these submissions and making the decisions, they’ve never heard of you; they’ve never heard of your firm; so you have to build some familiarity. Oftentimes it could be the second, third or fourth year that you submit that you get ranked. There are many times we’ve worked with law firms who’ve gotten ranked the first time around. So, it’s not set in stone, but you certainly want to keep that in mind if this is the first time you’re submitting and the first time they might have heard of your firm.

Sharon:    What are the downsides? If you’re a lawyer or a law firm marketing director, what are the downsides to submitting?

Megan:     Yeah, there are a lot actually. It’s incredibly time-consuming. You can talk to anybody who’s ever submitted lawyers or their firms before. It really takes a long time. It’s a very expensive process. Not all nominations are expensive, but it takes a lot of hours. I think I mentioned this earlier, but you have to do it year after year. There are a lot of these rankings where you don’t get included every year you submit. If you want to continue to maintain your rankings, every single year you have to do it and that also means you have to bug your clients. So as I mentioned, Chambers and Legal 500 and some of these bigger lists, you have to put forth up to twenty clients who can speak to the caliber of your work which means that every year these researchers are contacting your clients and every year you kind of have to ask them for a favor, “Hey, can you talk to this researcher and talk about the work we’ve done over the years?” It can be frustrating for a lot of lawyers. They don’t want to ask for favors of their clients. It’s tricky, so keep that in mind and then also one of the downsides is that you may not get ranked and it can be very frustrating and you look at the list and you think, “I’m just as good as any of these people ranked” and so you really have to push for it and that’s really just the competitive nature of these lists.

Sharon:    If a lawyer or a marketing director decides they want to go after a certain ranking, what should they not do? What should you say are the do not’s?

Megan:     Something to not do is don’t try to go after every single ranking. You really need to determine the right mix and I think that this is a harder question to answer for a lot of law firms. You want to think about your marketing and your business goals. For example, if you’re going after the national list, that’s great, but are you really a national firm or are you really more focused state or regionally. If you’re more focused state or regionally, then I would recommend you go after the state and regional lists as a starting point. It doesn’t’ mean that you have to cross the national off your list, but national is much more competitive.

The other thing to think about is what your clients might care about. This is a big topic of debate here and there’s a lot of controversy of whether people care about these lists or not and I’m happy to talk about that, but maybe there’s certain publications that your clients are going to read more than others and so go after those rankings first. You don’t want to just spend all of your time going after every single ranking. We wouldn’t recommend it for any firm, but really pick and choose. I think the other piece is try not to submit your whole firm. I know that there’s a lot of politics involved, but we work with a lot of law firms who come to us and they ask for help because they’ve never gotten on these lists and they want to get ranked and then I ask them, “O.K., who have you put forth” and they’ve put forth twenty-five people or sometimes more. That’s a lot and so if you’ve never been ranked on a list, but you’re asking Chambers and Partners to rank twenty-five of your lawyers and your law firm as a whole, it’s not strategic. You have to think about it. We recognize that there are some long-term goals, like maybe there are younger lawyers or associates who you want to make sure you prop up and include them, but maybe it’s just not the right time. Don’t submit the whole firm. Don’t submit every lawyer. Just really think strategically about who makes sense and who wants inclusion.

Sharon:    That’s very good advice. I would also just throw in there to make sure to allow yourself enough time. You can’t do this the day before.

Megan:     Right yeah, I mean just to give you an example, whenever we’re working with firms on Chambers and Partners submissions, we typically start four months in advance and that’s sometimes pushing it. Yes, absolutely give yourself time.

Sharon:    So if a lawyer is included on a list—because I think that’s probably what you’re talking with the debate in a sense—how can they make that work for them if they’re on the list?

Megan:     Sure, I mean a lot of people—you should care about getting on these lists. It gives you visibility; it gives you recognition; it’s very much a business development opportunity; it levels the playing field, a lot of the smaller firms out there who are competing with larger firms. There are a lot of reasons to go after these, but once you get on the list, the value comes with maximizing the power and extending the shelf life. For example, if you’re ranked, make sure to put it on your website, both on your bio and on the firm’s news page as an announcement. Consider including it in your e-mail signature. It doesn’t have to be a permanent fixture there, but maybe for several months, you can add something at the bottom like, “recently ranked on XYZ list.” There are also badges that you can purchase that you can put on your website or include in your e-mail signature. You want to do an announcement on your social media, both personal and the firm. You can include it in the firm’s e-mail newsletters or maybe send it out as a newsletter to some of your network. You can add it as a part of your marketing material that you use for prospects. There are a lot of ways to maximize this and I think that that is one of the most important pieces of getting ranked.

Sharon:    Yeah, no, that is important because if you go to all that trouble, you want it to work for you in the end. Do you think that in-house counsel—this is always a debate—do that in-house counsel who might be hiring outside lawyers look at these lists or care about these lists?

Megan:     Yeah, it is a big debate and actually we always joke about it with the clients the work with of whether or not they care, and I think the verdict is still out. I mean here’s what we’ve heard: I’ve been to a lot of conferences where there have been panels of in-house counsel and that very question is asked and half the panel raises their hands that they care and half doesn’t. I mean it’s really divided; some people are like, “I don’t even know what that list is” and other in-house counsel say, “Absolutely.” I think that there are a few things that we’ve heard consistently. One is we’ve heard in-house counsel say that they do use some of these lists to find local counsel, so for example, Chambers and Partners. If they’re in need of a lawyer in a specific state and maybe they don’t have connections there, they will use Chambers to find local counsel. I think a lot of them see it as a badge of credibility. It’s really a baseline; if you’re not ranked in some of these, they feel like maybe something’s missing. I think that it does matter to some. It’s not something that might make or break them hiring you, but that’s just what we’ve heard over the years.

Sharon:    Yeah, you’re right. The verdict is still out, but that’s true that it can help in-house counsel find local. I’ve heard that on panels too. What do you think a PR firm’s role is in getting a lawyer ranked? Isn’t this something you can do on your own?

Megan:     In full honesty, you can do it your own, but it’s what we do; it’s our business, so we know it better. We know the ins and outs of these rankings. We know each list, how to get ranked, who they’ve ranked before. You can compare—like some people want to go to Russia without knowing the language and without a guide and they can get around fine and others do not. I think a lot of people can do it on their own, but if you’re having trouble getting ranked, I think that sometimes is when you bring in an agency or experts like us who can help make some inroads with that publication and that ranking.

Sharon:    Being an advocate, yes. What else should we consider when it comes to legal rankings?

Megan:     I would say don’t be discouraged. I think it’s very frustrating. We get a lot of calls from lawyers and law firms who are like, “I am so tired of this. I haven’t gotten ranked.” A lot of times we can find problems with those nominations or things they can do better. Don’t get discouraged. Hang in there. I think if it’s really important to you, you should stick to it and then I would say the other piece is an outlet for feedback. A lot of people don’t do that. Chambers actually will release some feedback to you and they then have a report that you can purchase, but let’s say you’re going after some of your state or regional rankings and you don’t get ranked year after year, ask them why you didn’t get ranked. Most outlets will share some feedback with you and usually that feedback is very helpful. I mean there are times where we’ve taken that feedback and have been able to improve our rankings for next year and get ranked. Feedback is very important.

Sharon:    Those are two very important points, especially not getting discouraged because it can be disheartening if you’ve put a lot of time and effort and you don’t get on the list.  Megan, thank you very much. That is such great information. Thank you so much and for everybody listening, that’s it for today’s Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Please join us next time when our guest will be another law firm professional who can help you move your firm forward. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts and please rate us. Thank you very much for listening.

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