Robert Frost once said: “A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.” Although obviously a quite cynical view of our country’s jury system, Frost’s statement confirms the reality that clients have opinions about lawyers and act on those opinions. Yet, for nearly 150 years, clients’ opinions about their lawyers have been relegated to word of mouth.
Information passed on in this manner is not recorded in any organized way and is therefore not available to the general public. In that time, the only organized source of information about lawyers came from lawyers themselves. All of that is now changing in a rapid, dramatic and explosive fashion, opening new channels and communities of information for legal services consumers, and creating exciting marketing and business development opportunities for lawyers and law firms.
Since 1868, Martindale-Hubbell has provided the largest library of lawyer and law firm profiles and ratings. Law firms across the country reflexively and dutifully subscribe to the company’s hardbound volumes, placing them prominently in their libraries, confident they have taken the most obvious step to ensure clients looking for legal representation will find them. Just as important to such firms is Martindale-Hubbell’s peer review and rating system, touted by the company as an objective measure of a lawyer’s ethics and abilities. Receiving a peer review rating is a singularly egocentric moment for a lawyer, suggesting he or she had “arrived” in a professional sense.
The traditional lawyer-ratings paradigm created by Martindale-Hubbell is straightforward: lawyers rating lawyers for the benefit of lawyers seeking to hire lawyers. For decades, the benefits and merits of Martindale-Hubbell’s ecosystem have hardly been questioned. The fact that most consumers of legal services, other than general counsel, had no ready access to Martindale-Hubbell’s books has never been a concern for the company. Nor, apparently, have law firms worried much about the fact their clients had no ability to independently provide their perspective about a lawyer’s ability.
To the contrary, Martindale-Hubbell’s rating system provided comfort and security to an inherently conservative legal profession that only thoughtful and knowledgeable people, meaning other lawyers, could weigh in on another lawyer’s skill and ability. The system kept the riff-raff out. A client’s views could largely be limited to word of mouth, which inherently has a shorter life span and less authoritative stature than the printed word.
In 1990, the appearance of Chambers & Partners and their “research-driven” ratings system opened the first crack in the traditional lawyer rating system. Chambers differentiated itself from Martindale-Hubbell by offering ratings of lawyers and law firms that included information obtained by interviewing clients. The results of interviews are edited and whittled down to short quotes or strings of adjectives, usually without any context or attribution. For example, a lawyer might be described as “unflappable,” “delightful,” “hard-working” or “an intelligent guy who keeps up to date on all of the pertinent issues and is rewarded with a good client following.” Negative information is never presented.