Legal league tables: recognition of achievement or a cavalcade of clever marketing?

 

 

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I was interested to read an article in The Scotsman last week referring to analysis by PWC which shows that almost all of the UK’s top law firms are seeing their fees and profits “top expectations” this year, despite the pandemic.

That got me thinking. What is the impact of such information in the marketplace? What do clients and others who use legal services really think? If your business has suffered because of the pandemic, or you’ve had to lay people off, or perhaps you’ve been on furlough or face redundancy, how does this information come across to you?

I have often wondered what motivates individual law firms to report with enthusiasm rising profits, overall and per partner, year on year. What is the objective? As providers of professional services to people and businesses who may be in distress and for whom resort to legal advice is often a necessary though unwelcome step, what image do law firms cultivate when they announce another year of growth and high income?

One can understand that limited companies with shareholders will make a virtue of generating profit and paying dividends. That is, after all, a feature of the capitalist model. Should professional services firms be viewed in the same way? To what extent are lawyers providing a public rather than a private service? Do high-earning lawyers create a favourable impression in the marketplace? A reflection of high quality perhaps?

When I started out in practice, both as a solicitor for a short while and then at the Bar, individual advertising was in its infancy and indeed, at the Bar, was frowned upon. Things have changed of course. At this time of year, we also have the publication of rankings in legal directories. Both solicitors and advocates will be looking anxiously at the Legal 500 or Chambers Guide findings. We will hear about the successes in the weeks ahead. There will be tweets and Linked In entries telling us of those achievements. But what is this really all about?

I write with the experience of promoting mediation, a mediation business and myself when I started out as a mediator back in the early 2000s, and thereafter. I know also how important it can feel to achieve “Band 1” rankings in the directories – and confess to using these in marketing. There is a sense of conforming: “everyone is doing it” – and a compulsion to align with the market’s expectations.  To do so, one needs to discard any feelings of awkwardness regarding self-promotion. In the past two years, I have elected not to participate in this exercise and, as a result, my rankings are slipping significantly. That feels uncomfortable. But why does it matter?

I have wondered how much of this is about ego. About being seen by one’s professional peers as successful. Is approval by peers the real driver? How much does this really matter to those who wish to use our services? How often do clients read these rankings, using them in the way that many of us rely on Trip Advisor for our next hotel or restaurant booking?

Recognition of achievement is fine, of course, especially if not sought. But are we being drawn into this whole cavalcade by clever marketing? Never forget that the legal directories charge significant amounts of money for enhanced entries in their publications. It is an industry in itself.

And what of those who do not feature? Or are ranked at a lower level?  Or are seeking to break into the profession? There is a hierarchy established, a professional pecking order. If so and so is the named “leader in the field”, someone else is not. Does that impact on business generated? Perhaps it does, and that is the way the world now goes round.

Looking back, I have tried to imagine those to whom I looked up a generation ago in either branch of the profession completing forms or nominating referees to promote themselves in a ranking of peers. That is hard to visualise. And I suspect that announcing record profits in public would not have been thought appropriate in days gone by. We live in a different world now of course. But perhaps we should continue to ask these questions of ourselves and of our profession. What price humility and what cost hubris?

 

John Sturrock, The Scotsman, Monday 25 October 2021

 

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