Law Firm Marketing

Those Stupid Superlative Lawyer Lists

By | Nov.04.15 | Advertising, Business Development, Daily Dispatch, Legal Marketing

Ultimate Associate's marketing checklist ross fishman

“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 things anyway.”

And sometimes: “Candidly, I think less of any law firm that wastes their money advertising in them. 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.

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, 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.

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 one of them 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.

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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15 Responses to “Those Stupid Superlative Lawyer Lists”

  1. Jeff Hild
    4 November 2015 at 9:36 am #

    Amen to that Brother Ross!

  2. Ann Lee Gibson
    4 November 2015 at 11:33 am #

    Ross Fishman has said it out loud: “The emperor has no clothes!” Just stop already funding the Best / Super / Magnificentest / Beautifulest / Toughest / Pays Most Attention to Detail lawyer listings. I hope this brilliant article is reposted, repurposed, reprinted, and lives forever.

  3. Yamil Francisco
    4 November 2015 at 2:40 pm #

    Love this article! Here is what many lawyers that sign up to those publications do not realize, most consumers hire from #1 personal referral, #2 online search and a very far 3rd place is actual advertising. Most of the advertising that actually works is not in this type of marketing. It’s a waste of time and money.

  4. Dustin
    5 November 2015 at 1:47 pm #

    You just killed a few sacred cows. What’s next? Are you going to tell me that my Paid VIP listing is worthless? But my friend got a 2 billion dollar case from his paid FindLaw ad.

  5. Clayton
    5 November 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    I agree with this article. However, I do see some law firms use the “Best Lawyer” or “Super Lawyer’ badges & monikers on their websites and in their marketing materials. I wonder if those badges have any impact on consumers when they are comparing a law firm – providing the specter of superiority. The superlative lists providers offer more marketing options than just a listing in some book or magazine that no one (except other lawyers maybe) is going to read.

  6. Ross Fishman
    5 November 2015 at 11:28 pm #

    Clayton, here’s the thing — as I see it, and I don’t have any data on this point, is that for firms working at a high level, the clients KNOW you’re smart enough to do the work, or they wouldn’t be looking at you in the first place.

    They’ve gotten to your bio (where the badges sit) because they’ve already learned that you’re sufficiently skilled. Sophisticated business clients aren’t going to be persuaded by a “Best” or “Super” badge.

    That being said, a lay consumer MIGHT be slightly persuaded when reviewing a PI or divorce lawyer. Of course by now EVERYONE has innumerable honors, or at least things that LOOK like honors.

    Most consumers can’t tell the difference between a legitimate credential (e.g. a high Chambers ranking) vs. a “Marquis Who’s Who” badge.

  7. Iain
    7 November 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Gotta agree with this article. Too much time and money is wasted on these directories. Mostly so the ego of some lawyer can be satisfied by seeing their name in lights (no one else is looking!) or because of a fear their competitors will be there and they wont. Or they are used as an excuse to abrogate the need for proper, focused business development and marketing. I agree, there may be an opportunity to use these listings to support other BD and marketing efforts, as Clayton says, but ultimately decent clients will be delivered through real credibility building, quality referrals and references grounded in experience of work.

  8. Sy Abelman
    7 November 2015 at 8:55 pm #

    I am an Illinois Super Lawyer in obtaining continuances and Motions to Advance and Reset. For shits and grins, I had all of my Shit law solo buddies nominate me for Admirality Law, something off the wall.

  9. Doug
    9 November 2015 at 3:43 pm #

    But Ross, everytime I get on one of those lists I see IMMEDIATE results i.e. calls and emails from salesmen from plaque and memento companies, offering to varnish my entry and sell it to me for $100.

  10. Ross Fishman
    10 November 2015 at 12:11 pm #

    Funny, Sy and Doug. One thing I failed to mention is the enormous waste of marketing department time and effort filling out the damn forms to GET on the lists. Larger firms now have FULL-TIME marketers whose sole job is dedicated to managing the directory listings. 40 hours per week, just filling out the forms to get their people into Super Lawyers, etc.

    Think of what that person COULD have been doing that would actually HELP the firm and the lawyers develop business. But that’s the world we’re in today. Crazy.

  11. Alexander Sane
    18 November 2015 at 11:37 am #

    Ross, on your webpage you brag about your awards. I wonder how is that any different? I would worry more about those “marketing” experts that think tweeter, Facebook and all that social media is worth the time, effort and money. They probably do this to justify their paycheck.

    Nothing will ever adequately replace face to face, but having your name or your firm’s name out there among a serious crowd can bring value. The mistake is to bank too much on the accolade and miss the opportunity to talk about the services you offer. At the end of the day many of those publications are used as reference and referral guides.

  12. Anne Parys
    25 November 2015 at 1:51 pm #

    Great article Ross. As a legal marketer, I couldn’t agree more. I straddle the line by doing a press release and will use free badges on our website. But we also instituted a strict “no self congratulatory ads” policy. My attorneys know, and I tell all the plaque salesmen that while we may buy an ad to congratulate a client, we NEVER spend money to congratulate ourselves.