June 2008 #1. Simply the Best? A Comparison of Lawyer Rating Systems.

Author:by Jennifer M. Young

Hawaii Bar Journal


June 2008 #1.

Simply the Best? A Comparison of Lawyer Rating Systems

Hawaii State Bar JournalJune 2008Simply the "Best?" A Comparison of Lawyer Rating Systemsby Jennifer M. YoungThis past decade has seen an influx of ranking systems and guides for everything from vacuum cleaners, private elementary schools, golf courses and online search engines to, as we all know, legal counsel. Ratings, available in neatly organized guides, are intended to enable consumers, with a few clicks of a mouse, to immediately differentiate between the "mediocre" and the "exceptional." Across the board, ranking systems purport to employ objective methods to condense data gathered from painstaking research processes and studies and present findings through a comprehensive and reliable list. Such systems provide consumers the feeling of being able to own, use, visit, or hire "the best."

For the most part, lawyer ranking systems claim to do the same. While word-of-mouth referrals remain a considerable source of business, clients seeking legal counsel may now consult any one of the many lawyer ranking guides to supplement their search. Based on this search, clients may proceed to hire rated attorneys, whose exceptional legal ability and professionalism have earned them accolades. Those attorneys, who have been deemed outstanding enough to be awarded a coveted spot amongst the elite of their peers, are able to describe themselves as one of "the best."

But what really goes into the determination of such an honor? How are criteria, research protocol and methodology for each rating system established? which individuals comprise the selection committee? Can a listing be bought for a price? This article seeks to identify the key elements of such rankings and compare the main differences between the more established and familiar lawyer rating systems currently available: Best Lawyers, Chambers and Partners, Martindale-Hubbell, Super Lawyers and Who's Who Legal.1

Best Lawyers in America

The Best Lawyers in America ("Best Lawyers") is an annual peer-review publication established in 1983, published by the national legal search firm, Woodward/White, Inc.2 Honolulu magazine publishes the Best Lawyers in Hawaii list biennially, identifying "the best counselors the Islands have to offer" by practice area.3 In 2007, 222 Hawaii attorneys in 38 specialties were listed in the Hawaii edition of Best Lawyers, several of whom were editorially featured. Best Lawyers describes its guide as the "gold standard for accuracy and integrity"4 amongst legal referral publications, and the "most reliable, accurate . . . useful . . . [and] . . . transparent guide to the best lawyers available anywhere."5 Best Lawyers prides itself on fulfilling its mission of being a guide based entirely on rigorous peer review, on the belief that "the quality of a peer-review survey is no better than the quality of its voting pool."6

In securing nominations, Best Lawyers applies the following methodology.7 First, nominations are gathered for the candidate pool. All attorneys listed in the previous edition are automatically included in the pool. These attorneys are asked to nominate "outstanding" attorneys not previously nominated (ballots generally include previous nominees from two years prior). Marketing directors are also permitted to nominate attorneys from their firms. Once a list of nominees has been generated, Best Lawyers creates customized ballots for each geographic area and specialty within such area. The attorneys listed in the previous edition (and sometimes, nominees who have received exceptionally high votes) are asked to vote by grading the candidates in all established specialties. If new specialties are added, attorneys in related specialties and/or attorneys in the same specialty in a different jurisdiction, as well as nominees with exceptionally high votes, may vote. Generally, in large legal communities, voters may only vote for lawyers in the same specialty within that community. In mid-sized legal communities, voters may vote for attorneys in related specialties in the same community or the same specialty in the entire state. In small legal communities, lawyers may cast votes for attorneys in all specialties within that community.8 Best Lawyers describes the state of Hawaii as a small market, and the city of Honolulu as a mid-sized market.9 Despite these classifications, Best Lawyers maintains a level of flexibility in the voting process and the pool of candidates for which the voting attorneys may cast their vote.10

Each voting attorney is asked: "If you could not handle a case yourself, to whom would you refer it?"11 Attorneys casting votes then assign A, B, or C letter grades to their respective peers, with +/- symbols, if desired, for precision. A grade of "A" means the attorney "would certainly refer" a case to that candidate; "B" means "would probably refer" and "C" means "might hesitate to refer."12 After "eccentric" grades are discarded, the grades are converted to a numerical score and averaged. Provided that they are in good standing with their respective bar association, attorneys with the highest average scores within the specialty are selected for inclusion in Best Lawyers.13

To protect the integrity of its process and product, attorneys may not provide the names of professional references who will be asked to rate them. Best Lawyers sets no quotas or percentages for the number of attorneys named to the Best Lawyers list, and it does not require any payment for an attorney to be listed. Certain limitations are imposed on the publicizing of one's listing in Best Lawyers.14 While Best Lawyers recognizes the inherent subjectivity of every poll, it states that the "breadth of our survey, the candor of our respondents, and the sophistication of our polling methodology largely correct for any biases."15

Chambers and Partners

Chambers USA: America's Leading Lawyers for Business ("Chambers USA"), a legal referral guide and directory, is published annually by the British ratings company, Chambers and Partners Publishing ("Chambers"). Chambers USA, one of six legal referral guides published by Chambers, made its debut on the U.S. market in 2003. Since then, Chambers USA has quickly grown in size of content and readership.16 Chambers issues rankings for practice areas in each state where a competitive market exists.17 In Hawaii, Chambers currently issues rankings for firms and individual attorneys in six areas of law: Bankruptcy/Restructuring; Corporate/Commercial; Labor and Employment; Litigation: General Commercial; and Real Estate.18 Unlike certain other ranking systems, Chambers assigns a greater weight to views of clients in calculating its rankings and describes the client feedback it receives as the "bedrock" of its research.19 Chambers describes firms and lawyers, in part, by featuring recent work highlights, major clients, and through the use of illustrative, anonymous client quotes, which Chambers believes reflect the prevailing view of the community.20

The Chambers research team, comprised of 40 full-time researchers,21 conducts confidential,...

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