ABA commission studies 'best lawyer' ratings

Providers of lawyer and law firm rankings profess to employ a “completely transparent” methodology for arriving at their selections but, as an American Bar Association panel has learned, one provider’s idea may differ from another’s on what constitutes complete transparency.

The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 is looking into how such rating services operate and recently heard from three invited representatives of companies that rate or rank lawyers or law firms.

Among the trio was Steven Naifeh, a founder and editor of Best Lawyers, which collaborated with U.S. News and World Report on its recently published Best Law Firms, a ranking of law firms nationwide.

Also questioned was Aric Press, vice president and editor in chief of ALM, the parent company of American Lawyer, which publishes the Am Law 100 — an annual ranking of the nation’s biggest and most profitable firms — and other surveys.

The third representative was  Joshua King, vice president of business development and general counsel of Avvo, which publishes an online directory of attorneys who have been rated on scale of one to 10.

Naifeh told the commission there are more than 900 businesses purporting to rate or rank one thing or another, employing a methodology that ranges from very precise to non-existent.

But he invited the commission to “check out” the methodology used in the U.S. News survey, which he said is not only more rigorous than most but is completely spelled out in the survey’s accompanying materials.

Press said Am Law publishes three types of surveys, including quantitative ones like the Am Law 100, as well as qualitative ones and opinion surveys, based on a variety of factors and sources, including information that comes directly from the firms.

“We try to be as careful as possible, but our efforts are far from scientific,” he said.

In fact, he likened the methodology to the college admissions process, “with the exception that legacies don’t get extra votes,” he said.

King told the commission that Avvo rates lawyers based on a “very complex, very sophisticated” formula that takes into account a variety of factors, including education, work experience, licenses, publications, awards, testimonials from other lawyers and disciplinary records.

But he refused to offer many details, saying the company regarded the exact formula it uses as a “trade secret.”

“We like to think of it as our secret sauce,” he said.

The commission, among other things, is examining the possible effects of such rankings and ratings operations, if any, on the core values of the profession.


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