Beware the 7 Deadly Sins of Law Firm Awards

image with moving road signs and firesign marketing logo that states In the thick of award and rankings season — beware of these seven deadly sings of law firm awards

For many law firms, it’s the thick of rankings season, as the third and fourth quarters bring a bevy of submission deadlines, from IP Stars to Legal 500 to Chambers USA.

We pursue these programs – reputable recognitions that take into account casework, references and more – to build credibility in key practice areas and markets. (After all, according to Greentarget’s State of Digital and Content Marketing Survey, half of in-house counsel and 56 percent of the C-suite say these accolades matter when screening new outside firms.)

So why don’t firms play to win?

If you want to add a new ranking (or improve your standing for a current recognition), heed the Seven Deadly Sins of Award Season:

One: Failing to read the directions

First, let’s talk about deadlines. Most of these programs publish their schedules months in advance. This is not for their own enjoyment; they have production schedules of their own. Submit your entry on time; if there’s a true extenuating circumstance, communicate it as soon as possible, but don’t bank on any favors. (Even if you’ve gotten an extension before.)

Now for the submissions themselves: While many foundational elements of these award programs remain the same year after year, occasionally there are little adjustments – the number of references allowed, a new word count limit, a question added or subtracted. Don’t make any rinse-and-repeat assumptions. Review the submission template and any accompanying instructions before you start. (Many programs are offering educational webinars when they kick off the submission process; again, they do not do this for their own enjoyment. By attending, you’ll learn about any new tweaks, save yourself from having to ask a silly question…. and maybe get some karma points.)

Reading the directions is especially key for rankings programs that take submissions through portals. Confirm your log-in and test it early. Do not wait for 5 p.m. on the day your material is due to find out your log-in has expired (or worse, that there’s a brand new portal in place).

Two: Failing to make a case

Too many law firms cut and paste milquetoast practice group descriptions into award rankings. This does not help you stand out from the stack of submissions at all. In fact, most (if not all) of your competitors can say the same things: a deep bench of experienced lawyers, a variety of clients spanning myriad industries, an enviable record of success…

We all know that song.
Do not cut and paste your marketing boilerplates into your submission. Instead, review the award and category criteria, and draft straightforward language that speaks directly to the editors.

Start with a sentence like, “Pearson Specter merits ranking in ___ category for three reasons,” then list your arguments. (Don’t have three arguments? This may not be the right ranking.)

Three: Failing to make your work relevant

This next point is critical if you are competing for a state or regional ranking that will be evaluated by a judge outside the U.S. (For example, you are pursuing a Chambers ranking for real estate in Illinois.) You must put yourself in the role of the editor – someone based in London, who has no idea about your local market – and educate.

Perhaps Wayne Enterprises is a household name in your city/state/region. Do not assume that the company name means anything outside the U.S. Whenever you mention the client, make it relevant: “We serve as the primary real estate counsel for Wayne Enterprises, a chemical, shipping and manufacturing conglomerate that operates 140 facilities across the country.”

Make sure you do the same for results, too. Acknowledge that the editor may not be an expert in the field of law – but certainly is reviewing dozens of lookalike submissions. Write your results so they are lively, accessible and meaningful. Instead of “Advised Wayne Foundation on construction of new headquarters in Gotham City,” add details that make the story real: “Advised Wayne Foundation, the largest private foundation within the DC Universe, on construction of new headquarters. The complex transaction involved a public-private partnership with Gotham City and unique zoning considerations due to an underground bunker that houses Batman’s Subway Rocket vehicle.”

Four: Failing to account for the competition

While you should never disparage other firms (in your submission or the interview), you should review the landscape and prepare key points on how you stand apart from the pack. While some “tale of the tape” metrics, like headcount, can be helpful, it’s more fruitful to dig into metrics of the legal work.

What are the quantitative measures that show your dominance? Have you handled more litigation matters in a given jurisdiction than your competitors, filed more patents, et cetera?

What are the qualitative measures that show your quality? Are any of your matters the biggest, the first, precedent-setting?

If you are a boutique going for an award that has only gone to mega-firms so far, don’t be afraid to stand up for your peer group: “While we recognize the excellence of the firms recognized to date, we would call your attention not only to our firm, but to other outstanding specialist firms, including…” Naming a few other firms worthy of a look can help you garner a few more karma points.

Five: Failing to present a team

Award editors, like your clients, know that most legal matters are not resolved by one-man bands. For programs that ask for the names of individuals on a given project, provide all of the lawyers involved, including associates.

While promoting solo acts might help that lawyer get listed, presenting a limited roster can hurt your chances for a firmwide ranking.

Six: Skimping on references

While the firm information and representative casework are important, so many of these award programs hinge on market feedback. Supply as many references as you are allowed. Select references for responsiveness, not clout: An in-house paralegal who will participate in the process is worth far more than a general counsel or CEO who will not.

Don’t surprise your references, either. Obtain permission, and manage expectations in terms of who will be contacting them, when to expect this outreach, and what will be covered. (If this is not clear on the award’s website, ask – the editors want and need reference participation, too.)

Mind “reference fatigue,” and try to avoid listing the same references for awards with similar timelines. If you are running short on references, some publications will allow you to list other outside counsel familiar with your work – and many peers will appreciate a reciprocal reference relationship.

Seven: Failing to follow up.

Most award evaluation cycles span several months. So again, while it is critical to meet the deadline, don’t assume any news that happens afterward is moot.

If you have significant news to share – a new case win, a reputable lateral, an acquisition – send it along to the relevant editor. (Make it easy for them to connect the dots; I like to use “Update: Firm Name: Jurisdiction – Practice Area” in the subject line.)

For some awards, the submission is just the start. Next, there’s an interview, reference calls, you name it. Meet the deadline, but don’t stop there: Maximize your chances of a win by staying accessible, responsive and respectful.