'Super Lawyers' sold to highest bidder: Westlaw

By David Yas

Dolan Media Newswires

Thomson Reuters bought ... what?

Yes. Thomson Reuters, the conglomerate that includes West Publishing and calls itself ''the world's leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals,'' has purchased a company called Super Lawyers.

And thus we are left to analyze the weirdest marriage since Anna Nicole Smith and that rich dude. This may not be quite as creepy, but still ...

Thomson Reuters is stoic. Sturdy. Reliable. Cold, hard facts. Books of published opinions so heavy they should be registered as lethal weapons.

West Publishing? That's black-letter law. Like, literally. I would not be surprised if the company went decades without using color ink.

And Super Lawyers? I can barely type it without chuckling. When it comes to legal publishing, Super Lawyers is the weird, colorful cousin you're embarrassed to acknowledge.

Super Lawyers, of course, is the lawyer-rating system that each year publishes a list of the ''top'' 5 percent of attorneys in each state as determined by a system that relies heavily on lawyer recommendations.

It's celebrated by many of the lawyers who make the list, who happily send out ''super'' press releases.

It's mocked by many others as an elaborate, superficial popularity contest with a silly name. Behind their backs, firms are jeered for their all-smiles Super Lawyers spreads.

Last week I caught up with Barb McGivern, Thomson's VP in charge of Super Lawyers, to make sense of this odd coupling.

As it turns out, Thomson has two divisions: the Legal Division and the Business of Law. The Legal Division is more of the black-letter stuff, including West. The Business of Law, more or less, sells marketing stuff to lawyers.

That's where Super Lawyers resides. West is quite separate from Super Lawyers. Never the twain shall meet.

I wanted to push McGivern on the methodology used by Super Lawyers and whether such an operation really belongs under the venerable Thomson Reuters umbrella.

Super Lawyers, she tells me, is a list that includes 50,000 attorneys each year, but ''not the same every year.''

The selection of the Super Lawyers list is ''very much walled off from the sales process,'' she says.

In other words, the Super Lawyers research team comes up with the list, it is ''frozen'' and then the sales staff reaches out to the lawyers on the list to see if they want to buy nice, shiny ads to appear in the published Super Lawyers product.

That's the business model. The product makes money solely from ads sold to lawyers on the Super Lawyers list.

How do they ensure against ballot-box-stuffing?

''There's a fairly elaborate 'back scratch checking' process,'' says McGivern.

People have been disqualified, she says, but admits, ''I don't know if it happens a lot.''

But the prohibition on lobbying seems fragile.

What if, I ask, a lawyer simply e-mails hundreds of friends and says: ''No pressure, but if you think I deserve to be named to the Super Lawyers list, please vote for me ...''

Would that be OK, I ask?

''I think so,'' says McGivern.

Does anyone ever ask to be taken out of consideration for the list, I ask?

''It happens infrequently,'' she remarks.

Why, I wonder, does Super Lawyers pick 5 percent of lawyers to honor when that results in an ''elite'' group of 2,000 in states like Massachusetts?

McGivern explains that the list is meant as a resource to consumers, so getting a broad list with diverse practice areas and a range of billing rates makes sense.

Can lawyers who are not on the list buy ads in the publication?

No, McGivern tells me.


''I don't know,'' she says, but offers that such an ad might imply that the lawyer was on the Super Lawyers list. (By the way, Super Lawyers is careful to call those on the list ''lawyers who are on the Super Lawyers list,'' rather than ''Super Lawyers,'' because of certain ethical rules. I mean, come on.)

In our 45-minute phone conversation, McGivern actually acquits herself fairly well given that I am playing the ''Super Lawyers-is-a-big-silly-popularity-contest'' card over and over again.

To her credit, she acknowledges the oddity of the Thomson-Super Lawyers alliance.

''I come from Westlaw and know that the brand means dependable, helpful and expert,'' she says.

''Having a rating service [like Super Lawyers] makes a lot of sense to me. [But] if this began at West, would it be called 'Super Lawyers'? Probably not. It would probably be something more buttoned-down.''

McGivern (again, a West vet) was involved with courting Super Lawyers and had very few misgivings.

''We do not think that identifying and recognizing excellent attorneys are anything cheesy or denigrating to the practice of law,'' she says.

Well, then.

I still think it's weird and creepy. But Super Lawyers and Thomson, may you live happily ever after.

Published: Thu, Mar 18, 2010


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