Talking to ourselves

American Lawyer magazine has released the 2008 edition of its A-List — its ranking of the firms that “best embody what it means to be a success in the legal community.” If you’d like to know about the cream of this particular crop, here’s the top 20 (registration required).

To produce the A-List, American Lawyer takes results from three of its own scorecards (revenue per lawyer, pro bono commitments and associate satisfaction) and one from the Minority Law Journal (diversity) and crunches them to get an overall score. RPL and pro bono scores are doubled, then added to the raw satisfaction and diversity numbers: (RPL score x 2) + (PB score x 2) + AS score + D score.

Now, it seems to me that, at the great majority of law firms, the relationship among these four criteria could be better estimated as (RPL score x 9) + (AS x 1) + (PB x 0.5) + (D x 0.2). So if a firm has managed to generate equivalent ratings in both RPL and pro bono or associate satisfaction, I’m inclined to think it’s done a pretty good job of figuring out the system, just as law schools have done with the US News and World Report law school rankings. And I think that recruits (for whom the A-List is surely intended) who believe that these firms have managed to magically balance big profit with big commitment will end up disappointed.

But anyway, what bothers me more about the A-List is that it’s yet another lawyer or law firm ranking tool that gathers its data from lawyers or law firms themselves. The AmLaw 100 does it, too. So does Avvo. So do almost all the legal periodical surveys that rate lawyers in a particular practice area or region. Most legal profession ratings and rankings are heavily or entirely influenced by lawyers’ opinions of themselves. That makes for a nice echo chamber effect, but it doesn’t tell us much about which lawyers and law firms are most effective at what (presumably) we’re here for: to provide legal services to clients.

I think a far more interesting and effective result would be reached by surveying clients about which lawyers and law firms they consider to be the best. Just off the top of my head, here are some statements this kind of survey could ask its respondents to agree or disagree with:

  • The firm understands and takes steps to serve our business goals.
  • The firm staffs our legal tasks appropriately.
  • The firm helps us improve our own legal processes.
  • The firm uses technology to our benefit (e.g., e-billing, extranets)
  • The firm can honestly be called “innovative.”
  • The lawyer visits our factory/office to learn more about us.
  • The lawyer understands my industry.
  • The lawyer communicates frequently, unprompted, and helpfully.
  • The lawyer explains the basis for his or her fees.
  • The lawyer delivers “value for money.”

I think that a firm or lawyer who scores well on surveys like these would also have something to say about “what it means to be a success in the legal community.”

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