The format of last night’s Chambers UK directory launch was similar to previous years – a short speech (in this case, by new UK editor Michael Perkin, above), followed by a stampede of lawyers keen to grab the new copy of the directory.
One announcement, sure to be music to the ears of legal marketers, was Chambers’ decision to raise the client reference limit to 20 names.
This means that law firms can now provide up to 20 references per submission for all future Chambers directories, an increase from the current 15 for Chambers USA, and 10 for the other directories such as Chambers UK.
It may not seem a big deal on the surface, but for those on the front line of submission production, it is highly welcome news.
The biggest gripe I hear from law firms is the difficulty in having to narrow down their client reference selection to stay within the Chambers parameters.
It’s not a problem in all law firms, but is acute in larger and/or US-based practices where you’re trying to be fair and even handed to all the partners who wish to participate in the process, or in a national section where you may have a large number of partners listed.
For many firms, the math simply doesn’t add up.
If you have, say, six partners listed, you want to give each of them at least two or three references.
Client response rates are in the 30-50% range so each attorney would want to provide at least two or three to ensure some level of response.
But then you will likely have a couple of further names you want to highlight, and they will need to provide client references as well – they’re unlikely to be recognized otherwise.
So you’re already well over the 15-person limit before you’ve even started.
Chambers will advise you to pick the “best” references or weight them in favor of newer names – but that’s more easily said than done.
Some UK firms have successfully nailed down institutional client relationships, so it’s more straightforward for them to identify core client companies that can speak about both the firm and several of its lawyers.
Over in the US, though, client relationships still largely follow individual lawyers, so the “best” client for Partner A is often a client who will rave about Partner A, not necessarily the firm more broadly, and the ideal client for Partner A is not the same as the best client for Partner B.
This issue has become such a bugbear for firms that some have developed partner directory committees whose job is to whittle down the number of partners that can be highlighted in the submission, and pore through extended client reference spreadsheets to cut the numbers down to 10 or 15.
To tackle these distortions and inefficiencies, I would go further with reform to the client reference system.
Some firms have suggested that Chambers should shift to a per-lawyer system rather than per-practice.
The present system in some ways favors smaller practices, who can provide a greater number of references per lawyer.
A practice with two highlighted lawyers could put forward seven or eight references for each of those lawyers, but a larger practice in a bigger state with, say, seven highlighted names, can only put forward two each.
That gives the partners in the smaller firm greater opportunities to receive positive client feedback, which can lead to recognition in the publication, or a move up in the rankings.
Moving to a per-lawyer system would create a more level playing field.
Or you could simply let firms provide as many client references as they would like – in the same way as Legal 500, which accepts an unlimited number.
But here you get to the nub of the issue.
When you talk to Chambers staff, they have a strong attachment to the culture of the company, which is centered on personalized research – that is, human beings getting on the phone to interview lawyers and buyers of legal services.
It’s true that this is a superior research method as you learn more from callers, and unearth information that you would otherwise not receive via an email.
Chambers doesn’t want to be “just another survey” – automatons pumping out thousands of emails without any human contact.
What makes Chambers different, and gives it strength and credibility, is the fact that you will get a smart researcher on the phone.
The problem is, though, that Chambers has become a victim of its success.
It pioneered this style of client research back in the 1990s, but the way in which it does its research has not kept pace with the level of interest from the market.
So you have essentially the same approach to research as 15-20 years ago, but many more law firms and lawyers taking part.
Chambers has responded by hiring lots of researchers, but even that hasn’t kept up with the number of firms and lawyers wishing to engage with the directories.
So you have this conundrum: over the years, Chambers has told firms repeatedly that client research is the key to rankings success, but for some lawyers who are new to the game, that pathway is increasingly limited.
At some point, you have to look at technology.
I know there’s a fear at Chambers that too much technology weakens the human factor but I think there’s a middle way.
You allow law firms to submit an unlimited number of references, but you only agree to call 20 per section.
In this scenario – when there are more than 20 references – Chambers still makes the calls, but they select 20 at random, or choose which ones off the list they wish to speak to by phone.
Chambers may pick references they haven’t spoken to before, or references supplied by newer partners – it’s their choice.
Under this approach, Chambers still makes as many calls as it did previously, but it has the added bonus of a wealth of additional survey research that comes in via emailed responses, which it can factor in to the rankings and editorial commentary and its bespoke “unpublished” reports – thereby improving the quality of its products.
The only potential hazard is managing law firm expectations.
Chambers will want to avoid an avalanche of “why didn’t you call my client” queries, so has to be careful in how it communicates with law firms.
So they promise to contact every one of the client references – “contact” only has to mean a minimum of one email from a central system – but they will call 20 individuals of their choosing.
Firms then have a choice: if they want to ensure that their client will be phoned by a real person, they can submit up to 20 references.
Other firms, like the larger practices described above, will probably provide more than 20, and take their chances, because it’s easier for them internally to be inclusive and allow everyone to participate, and avoid the invidious position of having to decide who stays in and who is left out.