Five Secrets to Legal Directory Ranking Success

by JD Supra Perspectives

Despite the fact that most in-house counsel do not make their outside counsel hiring decisions based on directory rankings, they are still important as part of the overall mix of public information about law firms and the lawyers who work at them – especially with the power of Google searches. 

Rankings can serve as useful third-party recognition that can aid with confirmation of referrals, provide valuable content for PR and branding purposes, assist with recruiting efforts for law students and laterals, and reinforce market position. 

In addition, we know that these rankings are important to many lawyers. Does anyone remember the genius “I am the best lawyer” satirical YouTube video? It did a great job of taking a lighthearted jab at the dynamic between lawyers and the marketing staff who are dedicated to getting them ranked in these directories. Each year I’ve chuckled when I’ve attended the Chambers USA launch breakfast in NYC and spotted numerous partners from the top firms at the event who just couldn’t wait to snag their very own copy of the book to see their rankings firsthand. 

Unfortunately, we can’t just give a lawyer a cape, tell them they’re awesome and call it a day. There’s a lot involved with preparing top-notch directory submissions. In addition, not all directories are created equal or worth our time and effort, despite what certain lawyers may think. That being said, it’s always nice to be publicly recognized for your accomplishments and work. It’s even better when you are being patted on the back by your actual clients, which is why Chambers and Legal 500 are considered the gold standard of legal guides.

Since I moved to a mid-size firm from Big Law, I’ve found the legal guides process to be more challenging because of the stiff competition from large firms and the rigidity of some of the practice categories in the directories. No matter how strong of a year your firm may have had matter wise and how brilliant your lawyers are, it is not easy to compete with the caliber and quantity of the matters, and the brand name clients of the behemoth firms.

Small and mid-size firms can still rank highly in these guides if they are creative and strategic in how they craft their submissions. It’s crucial to have the right lawyer input, the right client references (meaning actual clients who will speak to the researchers and say the right things!) and most of all – the right matters written in a way that shines a spotlight on your firm and your lawyers. 

...developing a strong references strategy for the legal guides process may be the single most important thing you do

Given how important these rankings are to many lawyers in the industry, and how they can support branding and business development efforts, let’s learn how to get the best possible results. Here are some “secrets” to elevate your firm’s legal directory rankings. 

Secret 1 – Call Me Maybe (No Really)

According to legal guides consultant extraordinaire Laura Mills, one of the most important components of a strong law firm directory submission are the references, and it’s where many firms make mistakes. Laura told me that the greatest emphasis should be on the responsiveness of your references, not the prestige of their job titles.

...your objective is to find the clients who can best speak to your abilities

Your goal is not to impress the legal guides by including senior-level clients – your objective is to find the clients who can best speak to your abilities, who are often those individuals in the trenches. While this may sound like a no brainer, you should only choose clients who truly like you. It’s not enough to have achieved a favorable result for a client, you must also have a personal connection with them – these are the individuals who will sing your praises without any shadow of a doubt.  

A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself these questions when choosing this year’s references. (If the answer is no, obviously do not include them.)

  • Will the reference actually respond to the researcher? 
  • Does the reference have a deep knowledge of my work?
  • Does the reference truly like me?
  • Are they the kind of person who will give detailed feedback? Will it be good feedback?

Some other key points to consider: Don’t just use last year’s list of references and call it a day. Take the time to carefully review the list and make updates that reflect who can best speak about your work. Remember that you do not need to include references that correspond with each of the matters that you are submitting but some of your references should be associated with the work included in the submission. 

Don’t just use last year’s list of references and call it a day...

Also, ensure that the contact information of each reference is correct on the spreadsheet that you submit. Remember that the researchers aren’t going to track down your clients’ updated contact information to get in touch with them – that’s your job.

One final point on references: Don’t forget to nicely ask each client that you list if you can use them as a reference before you nominate them to speak on your behalf. Nothing is worse than a scenario where your client receives a call from a researcher months later out of the blue without any context from you. Even better than giving them a heads up, offer to take your client out to lunch or dinner as a thank you for taking the time out of their busy schedules for providing the reference – who knows, this might even be the catalyst for a new matter! 

In short, developing a strong references strategy for the legal guides process may be the single most important thing you do to improve your directory results this year, so dedicate ample time to it. 

Secret 2 – Strength is in the Numbers and the Packaging 

If you find that you often run out of space when drafting matter descriptions, consider grouping deals/matters together under common themes.

The benefit of this strategy is twofold. First, you will bolster your submission by demonstrating the robust subspecialties of this particular practice; and second, you will create more space to include additional matters (being sneaky is fun!).

For example, let’s say you have four small/similar healthcare deals; why not package them together with a short introduction, which will enable you to tell a stronger and compelling story about your prowess in this area over the past year. 

Secret 3 – Tell a Compelling Story

It’s not enough to list billion dollar deals and Fortune 100 company names in your submission if you don’t have a compelling and articulate story to tell. Simply stating that your firm completed a deal and including the dollar amount will not make your firm stand out from the rest, in fact, it may put the researcher to sleep. 

The flipside of that is that you don’t need to write a book and include unnecessary details in your matters either – that can be seen as including filler and overcompensating, leading the researcher to lose interest and miss important details (or again, fall asleep).

PS - If you are all trying to help directory researchers overcome insomnia you are doing a good job! To really wake up researchers and capture their attention, make it easy for them to remember your firm and its work while also being brief. For each matter, demonstrate what you did for the client that separates you from the competition, and be memorable and creative. Here are some questions to guide you in crafting a paragraph or two to capture the researcher’s attention:

  • Was the matter the first of its kind or novel in any way? 
  • What was the specific legal challenge that the lawyers faced and what did they do to solve it?
  • What was significant about the matter?
  • What is the nature of the firm’s relationship with the client? A long-term client? New client?
  • Did the lawyers devise a legal strategy that was unique? 
  • What was the outcome of the matter? 
  • What strengths and differentiators can you play up of the firm and the lawyers who worked on the matter? 

If you are updating a matter from the prior year’s submission, Laura recommends that you rewrite the first few sentences so that the researcher knows right off the bat that the matter has been updated because, guess what? The researchers have last year’s submission next to them when reviewing the current one! They’re on to you – so don’t think that you can just rearrange a few words and hit send. 

Also, use short, succinct sentences and bullet points that will catch the researcher’s attention. Always aim for brevity and clarity in your writing. Keep “This matter was significant because…” in your head at all times and you will be on the right path. And finally, always have your submission professionally proofread. Careless mistakes make you look careless, period.

Secret 4 – Play by the Rules (and Read the Fine Print)

It is imperative that you always pay attention to deadlines and the timeframes for the matters that you can submit – all of these specifics are clearly outlined on the legal guides’ web sites, as well as the number of matters you can submit (for Chambers it is a maximum of 20).

In addition, there are other “rules” such as whether you can use confidential matters or not (just be sure to clearly note them in the submission) and any jurisdictional requirements. Always use their designated spreadsheets/forms and upload them to their site if that is their preferred way of receiving submissions. Also, don’t upload additional supplementary documents that you think may bolster your submission if they don’t ask for them. You don’t want to be disqualified from the process for something silly like not following the rules, sending unnecessary information or missing a deadline. 

Creating a project plan at the very beginning of the process for each submission, as well as a master calendar with each submission date, interview dates and the names and contact information for each researcher, and who is responsible for each part of the submission is one of the smartest things you can do. In my experience, the most successful submissions that I have seen are those where the communications and business development teams work closely together and are aligned. Neither group can work in silos because the legal directory process is truly a team effort that requires the skill set and institutional knowledge of all of these professionals to achieve the best results.

Secret 5Call in the Experts

I mentioned legal guides consultant Laura Mills and here’s why: Almost two years ago I moved from Big Law to a terrific, entrepreneurial mid-size firm. Along with the move came a more limited budget and a smaller in-house team, which meant becoming more nimble, resourceful and inventive with just about everything. I immensely rely on key outside business partners (a term I think much more accurately reflects the relationship between in-house legal marketing professionals and the outside experts they use on key projects versus “vendor”).

Having strong relationships with these industry experts is crucial to the success of many of my initiatives such as the legal guides process. Laura works hand-in-hand with the in-house marketing team at my firm and our lawyers to craft our submissions, functioning as an extension of our marketing team, sharing best practice insights and helping us improve our performance and understanding of the legal guides process. Laura was the longest-serving editor at Chambers USA and the immediate past editor of the guide, so, why wouldn’t we hire the best of the best to guide us in the process if we could? It seemed like a no brainer to me.

There are a number of other excellent legal guides consultants in our industry as well who will manage the entire process for you. My advice here is to call in and lean on the experts for help when you need them especially when your in-house team needs extra support.

...prepare to be in it for the long haul

Final Thoughts 

You can follow all of these best practices, conduct a ton of due diligence and write the very best submissions in the universe and still not be rewarded with the directory rankings that your firm covets (and deserves), and I know that can be very discouraging. With many of these rankings, prepare to be in it for the long haul. There are no quick fixes, so it’s important to manage expectations for yourself and your lawyers, and to stay positive. 

It may take a few years to achieve your firm’s desired rankings and of course, nothing is guaranteed, but stay the course.

Focus your time and resources on those categories where you have the best shots instead of those that are truly longshots. Of course in some cases, you have no choice but to submit in aspirational practices because of reasons outside of your control, but when you do have reasonable practice group chairs, show them which firms and lawyers have made the cut over the past five years and how those firms/individuals stack up against your firm. Suggest waiting until the time is truly right when you will have a strong case for a potential ranking.

Achieving top-tier directory rankings is a multiyear, team effort, so setting reasonable expectations will help to get everyone on the same page. Try setting an aspirational goal, for example, to be ranked in Chambers, and then work toward that by also submitting to other directories and awards that are more within your firm’s reach. Obtaining those interim wins will help to boost morale and set the stage for future successes. 

Now let’s put our capes on and get to work!


[Stefanie Marrone helps law firms effectively tell their stories and find their unique voices. Over the last 16 years, she has been working with some of the most prominent law firms in the world, developing and executing global revenue generating, business development, internal and external communications strategies, including media relations, branding, and multi-channel content marketing and thought leadership campaigns. She has a diverse range of experience in both Big Law and mid-size/small-law firms. Learn more.]

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