It’s been a few years since lawyer rankings and ratings have been prominently featured in legal media circles. Four years ago, regulatory officials in New Jersey determined that it was “false and misleading” for lawyers in that state to advertise their selection by Best Lawyers or Super Lawyers. After a long legal battle over what was referred to as Opinion 39, (I helped defend Super Lawyers), the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that the selection processes for both publications were bona fide and that lawyers have a First Amendment right to promote the accolade.

Since then, things have been pretty quiet other than the usual debate among legal marketers about the degree to which any of the rating services matter from a marketer’s perspective.

Enter U.S. News

What’s the rant now? Last year, Best Lawyers and U.S. News announced that they were going to work together and rank law firms. Under most circumstances, the entry of a new player in the highly competitive legal directory and rating industry would create little buzz, but not this one. Why? The reason is that U.S. News is now a player, a publication that is well known within the legal profession for its rankings of law schools.

There is hardly a law school dean without a strong opinion about how U.S. News ranks law schools. All agree that its ratings has had a significant impact on law school admission policies; many believe it has perverted the process in ways that may not be the best for the profession. As a consequence, there is now this unknown fear within the established Bar that the presence of U.S. News will similarly distort the profession in unpredictable ways. This anxiety was demonstrated by the fact that the ABA, at its national meeting this past February, passed a resolution to “study” the new rankings.

Tiering v. Ranking

The latest wrinkle to all of this occurred earlier this month. The two publications announced that after compiling its data, they concluded that “because firms were often separated by small or insignificant differences in the overall score, the rankings will be published alphabetically within tiers rather than as a numerical ranking.” This has brought a sigh of relief to some who believe that tiering will lessen the oversimplification inherent in representing law firm quality in numerical order. In theory, tiering will also prevent any law firm touts of being “# 1.”

Time will tell

The rankings are scheduled to be released in September. It is certainly possible that with sufficient tiers, they could become de facto rankings or promoted by firms as such. In any event, I will be watching and waiting to see if the buzz comes anywhere close to the level created by the Vuvuzelas at the recent World Cup games.

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