De Facto looks at why rankings matter so much to human beings in the wake of the Global Chambers 2010 law firm rankings. He tries to analyse what makes a law firm reach the top and what it takes to hold on to the coveted position.
I got a text message from my friend last night that read, “Dude- Links, AMSS & AZB are again the ‘go to firms’ on the new Chambers 2010 Ranking.” I texted him back and said, “You guys rock it every year.” Anyways, I wasn’t surprised - it was pretty much expected news. If they didn’t make it to that sweet spot, I would guess something went wrong somewhere in the world, maybe global warming or something (the excuse that everyone finds these days for their problems).
I ignored his message for a bit, but could not stop asking why so many other great firms didn’t make it to that Tier I band – the prestige circle. We may want to duck and dive our heads under the sand like an ostrich and say, I don’t care about what the rankings say, but guess what, at some point we have to take our heads out and witness what the rest of the world is saying. I am not saying rankings always speak to the accuracy and merit of the competence of each lawyer in that top firm, but they definitely indicate that based on the methodology adopted by the ranking agency those firms have achieved something that rest have failed to.
Why do companies like Google keep on featuring as one of the best companies to work for on Fortune 100? Why do so many parents want to see their children at IIT, AIIMS or NLS? Why is Apple, the “Apple” and not the other 100 companies that struggle to survive every year? Why do we have the notion of ‘Magic Circle firms’? Why do most law school students make their employment choices based on rankings of law firms? Why do clients like to boast that they have hired this super law firm, who has won A, B and C awards? These days some law firms even advertise on the footer of their e-mails on how they are recipients of certain awards.
I think human culture is all about achievements and accomplishments, and law firm ranking is just a way to measure the success of law firms; it is the IPL of Cricket, Formula 1 of car racing, World Cup of football, whatever you name it. Here is what I mean by human culture is all about accomplishments: no teacher of mine ever appreciated the student who came 16th in class; we never cheered for the last person in that 1500 meter race in school; your parents were never proud of you for coming 20th in that poetry competition; you never worked on anything to come last; and the list goes on.
Since we know that ranking has always mattered and matters today, let me get to why some law firms always make it to the top and others don’t. Firstly, top law firms never compromise on quality, from hiring best legal talent to providing best legal advice to the clients; never compromise on what comes in and what goes out of the firm. It is usually not so difficult to produce great quality work, if you have the best talent, but to manage that every time is not as easy as it may sound. I am sure we have come across idiots in great law firms and found several geniuses in not so great ones. The ability of the system in these great firms to filter not so good lawyers is what distinguishes them from the rest. It is the law of averages. If you can ensure that your average talent is better than many other law firms, you have made it. Lawyers are the most important asset of law firms, and if you want to be a successful law firm, never forget this fact.
Secondly, the successful ones have spent a lot of time, energy and money on marketing themselves as a brand. Branding is key – it is not enough if you just have great talent and great clients, it is important for the world to see that. These crème de la crème firms have branded and marketed themselves in certain ways. They market their strengths everywhere, inside and outside the firm – market certain image within the firm, in law school recruitments, client meetings, national and international conferences, and every opportunity they get.
Thirdly, the obvious phenomenon – if you have previously made it to the top – it is difficult to fall unless you messed up. Yes, it is a growing market and there are many new competitors and you need to continue to be innovative and grow, but the effort that you have to make to stay on top is not the same for you to get there. This is the primary reason why you see the same names on top almost every year.
If you ever want to start your own law practice and reach there, this is somewhat like a chicken and egg story. Where do you start? If you want to be that top law firm one day, would you start at hiring the best talent at law schools or get the best clients in the world? In the real world, if you are just starting none of them are easily achievable. The best client is already looking to find the best law firm in the world and the best law graduate is trying to work for that best law firm. You figure no where, and therefore have to start making yourself look attractive by using some of the following measures; provide quality, dedicated service at cheap price to clients; hire good talent by paying a fat salary; promise faster partnership track to good talent; enter into alternate fee arrangements; sacrifice the money that you make as the owner of the business, etc.
Look at examples like Trilegal and understand why they are always quoted as one of the best up and coming firms in the market – they adopted similar measures to ensure that it attracts talent and good clients, and they have managed that within a short span of time.
Congratulations to those who made it to the top, and to those who are not there yet, try finding innovative means to get there – at the end of the day, it’s all about where you stand!
De Facto is currently a lawyer practising in New York.