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Stop Squandering Dollars on Stupid Superlative Lawyer Lists

By Ross Fishman

Lawyer Lists: “Splendid Lawyer” and “Astounding Lawyer” awards are wearing out their value. Ross Fishman says there’s a reason marketers don’t like them.

“I’m selling ego to lawyers, Ross. I’m going to make a fortune.” — Actual quote from a marketing friend before starting a vanity directory.

Looking back, it turns out he miscalculated. It seems like he’s making closer to 10 fortunes.

May I Make a Request?

Please let’s stop the madness. Let’s stop squandering precious marketing dollars on these superlative lawyer lists. Consider:

  • Would you hire your law firm’s accountant based on an obvious advertorial? If not, why not?
  • If you couldn’t find your doctor‘s ad in a “The Best Doctors in America” airline magazine, would you fire her?

I’ve been marketing law firms for 25 years. I’ve interviewed countless clients regarding their buying habits and have seen many more asked specifically about these “best of” directories. In all those years, I’ve never heard a single client say they pay the slightest attention to them.

Not one. Not ever.

They never think: “I need a tax lawyer in Dallas; I’m going to grab my well-worn copy of ‘Splendid Lawyers’ and thumb through the full-page ads.”

And just because a 50-page advertising supplement is shrink-wrapped inside 20,000 copies of a prominent publication doesn’t mean that a single one of the subscribers will value it. You’re really busy — when you receive unsolicited advertorials, do you comb through them, pouring excitedly over every ad, or discard them as junk mail?

What I hear instead are things like: “’Astounding Ohio Attorneys’? I’ve never heard of it, and I’d never hire a lawyer out of those lawyer lists things anyway.”

And sometimes: “Candidly, I think less of any law firm that wastes their money advertising in lawyer lists. They obviously don’t know how I hire lawyers.”

So why would you volunteer to spend $10,000 on that?

Just because you heard that “a friend of a friend got a huge class-action case that way” doesn’t make it true. I know people who swear a friend of a friend woke up in an icy hotel bathtub without kidneys.

Superlative Lawyer Lists: How Did We Get Here?

Once upon a time, there was the “Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory” and its “AV” rating. Few lawyers seemed to know exactly what AV meant, but we all wanted it — after all, there was an “A” in it, and we all liked getting A’s. It was the sole professional measurement in existence; it was like your favorite teacher pasting a gold star on your law degree. And once a competitor had one, you wanted one too. An even bigger, shinier one.

And, of course, there were the “American Colleges” and “Best Lawyers.” But eventually, the vanity directory floodgates opened as companies found an easy way to vacuum money out of law firm marketing budgets.

The model was simple: Trademark a superlative, populate the database with all the usual suspects (i.e., the best-known lawyers in that category), so the selection methodology looked credible, and then invite lesser lawyers who’d be flattered to be included in the “Cool Club.”

Selling them an ad suddenly became quite easy.

The slick salesperson promised to (a) mail the directory to 20,000 general counsel, or (b) insert it into a prominent business magazine. That is, “Tens of thousands of your hottest prospects will see your ad and possibly hire you!”

You could fly a plane through the holes in that argument. However, few lawyers have the marketing expertise to critically analyze these publications and consider, “Wait, is receiving it the same as opening it, reading it, and using it to hire a lawyer?”

(“This is a tough one,” says the client. “I am persuaded by the photos of the groups of old white guys in suits. Now I just have to decide whether to hire the ‘Experienced. Excellent. Enthusiastic’ or the ‘Smart. Skilled. Savvy’ firm.”)

I actually heard salesmen vow, “Your best clients will see other firms’ ads and not see you, and you could lose them.” Legal marketers famously responded, “Oh yeah? Prove it.” We’re skeptical of those pitches because we see them all the time; it’s our job to follow this nonsense. And so the salespeople learned to sidestep the marketers and go straight to the equity partners.

This meant that many marketers found themselves unaware of the conversation until after the contract had been signed by an ego-stroked senior partner. That left the marketer in the awkward position of either embarrassing the proud lawyer by telling him he’d been duped by a slippery salesperson into buying a full-page Brooklyn Bridge, or sucking it up and writing the damn check.

Most have written that check, then commiserated with their marketing friends who wrote the same damn check at their firm. Who wants to burst the senior partners’ ego bubble?

On Krypton, Superman Isn’t Quite So Special

Eventually, every lawyer will have been anointed as Super, Awesome, Leading, AV, Premier, Elite, Best, Top or Who’s Who, rendering the accolades meaningless. In a world where everyone is amazing, no one is.

Granted, law can be a stressful, thankless job. The hours can be long and the clients demanding. And so when someone tells us we’re wonderful, most lawyers won’t fight very hard to disagree.

There are just so damn many awards/lawyer lists and some are simply money grabs. Sure, some of the money grabs have arguably credible methodologies. But do you know which is which? If you don’t, what is the chance that clients will?

I have a copy of the 2014 issue of “Leading Lawyers” magazine’s “The Top Business Lawyers in Illinois.” It is an astonishing 596 pages. Nearly all of them are full-page or nine-per-page business card-sized ads, plus endless alphabetical practice-area lists of lawyer names. And that’s just the Business Lawyers edition. There are other issues exclusively dedicated to litigators, women lawyers and more.

The ultimate law firm associate's marketing checklist

To those who are already dashing off a furious email to tell me about that huge case they got that one time strictly because of their ad, don’t bother. I’ll grant you that maybe I’m wrong; this is just my opinion. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone could eventually use a lawyer list to find and hire a lawyer. But then you must admit that if you spent that same $10,000 on beautifully engraved business cards and systematically threw them off the top of Willis Tower, someone might pick one up and hire you. Okay?

Hey, it could happen.

Illustration ©

Categories: Law Firm Marketing
Originally published June 6, 2016
Last updated October 31, 2020
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Ross Fishman

Ross Fishman is CEO of Fishman Marketing, a marketing firm focusing on strategy, branding, websites and training for law firms. A former litigator, marketing director and marketing partner, Ross helps law firms worldwide stand out from the competition and generate revenue. He is aA popular keynote speaker and trainer, a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inaugural inductee into the Legal Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame. Ross’s book, “The Ultimate Law Firm Associate’s Marketing Checklist,” is available on Attorney at Work. Contact him at, and via LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter @rossfishman.


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