Primerus sets the bar high for law firm certification

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The International Society of Primerus Law Firms is a Michigan-based initiative which transfers the trend to third-party certification seen nationally in many other industries to the legal field.

John Buchanan, who generally goes by Jack, created Primerus years ago after a series of events that started with what he saw as widespread disrespect for the legal profession.

In the early 1990s, Buchanan became disturbed by the increasing lack of esteem for lawyers, which he found to be at odds with what he knew about them. "Throughout my career it was a great honor to be a lawyer - we didn't do it for the money - it was honored, it was really something important." The first spate of lawyer jokes in the 1980s, during the first Bush administration with Vice President Dan Quayle -- himself a lawyer -- in the lead, underscored that negative attitude.

At the same time, the 1977 decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona opened up the field of advertising for lawyers. Buchanan feels this led to two very negative trends: first, the types of advertisements run cheapened the profession; and second, the attorneys who pulled in work through advertising who really did not know what they were doing.

Buchanan's first salvo in the battle against this denigration of the legal profession was to fight ads with ads: he started running general print ads that promoted what lawyers do, and what the legal profession does for society. One, for example, showed Stalin, Hitler and then-well-known bad guy Ayatollah Khomeini, and said "Three leaders who knew how to streamline the legal system." Or, in a direct hit at Quayle, something like "The top ten reasons there are too many lawyers in this country -- the Bill of Rights."

Though Buchanan, whose law firm at the time was called Buchanan and Bos, did not enter into the fray for the purpose of promoting his own business, he did have the foresight to keep careful track. "Before" surveys showed that the firm was a familiar name to 11% of those asked; after the ad campaign, 66% knew the name.

The next step in Buchanan's battle was to create a brochure, again distributed by his own firm, on "How to Judge a Lawyer." The advertisements included a way to request copies of the brochure. The content guided potential clients through the questions they needed to ask in order to get the very best representation.

At that point, a funny thing happened. Buchanan started getting a lot of calls from other lawyers and law firms, wondering if they could run his ads in other cities, or use his brochure in their offices.

While Buchanan was pondering what to do about those requests, he began to think: "I don't want anyone to use those materials who is not a good lawyer." That thought led to the obvious question, "Well, what do I mean by a good lawyer?"

He began to focus on thinking that through. Himself a well-respected lawyer with an excellent track record in serving his clients, Buchanan developed six principles that, if followed, made a law firm stand out.

Primerus calls these the "Six Pillars," and they are:

* Integrity. Clients should be able to entrust their sensitive legal matters to someone with high standards.

* Excellent Work Product. Even more than winning or losing, a lawyer should be sure that records are kept reliably, communications are clear and accountable, promises are kept, and there is an adequate amount of follow-through. The lawyer should have knowledge and expertise in his or her specialty.

* Reasonable Fees. They should be based on what is customary in a given area.

* Continuing Education. Education doesn't end with a law degree. Continuing Legal Education is critical to staying at the top.

* Civility. As officers of the court, lawyers must show respect to others including opposing attorneys.

* Community Service. The law, fundamentally, exists to hold communities together. Good attorneys must give back to their communities, including pro bono service.

The more Buchanan thought about these principles and what he saw as the growing public need for guidance on how to choose a lawyer, the more he thought that some kind of pre-screening service would be valuable. Thus, Primerus was born.

The International Society of Primerus Law Firms basically entails two prongs of activity. First, to use a term that described particularly well what Primerus set out to do in the beginning, it is a "seal of approval" of law firms around the country and, in fact, the globe.

Second, it is a "match-making service" between those approved law firms and potential clients.

To be sure that the seal of approval is warranted, Primerus has high standards itself for documentation and investigation. Senior Vice President of Membership Development Scott Roland oversees that work, but the final decision is made by a third party board of accreditation. Primerus firms must submit detailed records and are reviewed every year.

Buchanan says, "Even my own law firm could get kicked out if it doesn't stick to the standards." He is still Of Counsel to Buchanan and Buchanan, and Primerus shares their suite.

Law firms must have under 50 attorneys, and there can be only one law firm per geographic area specializing in any practice. There are now Primerus law firms in more than 100 cities, in 43 states, and in Canada, Mexico, England and the U.S.

The "dating service" aspect comes in through a later development, which is cultivation of regional and national clients who are looking for excellent firms in other markets. Primerus holds "convocations" where clients meet law firms as well as become educated on the latest law.

Primerus offers many other services to the chosen firms, such as Web site optimization , liability insurance, and legal education opportunities.

More information is available at

Published: Fri, Feb 5, 2010