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Legal Directories in the Age of Google

Will online self-promotion and marketing make the legal directory obsolete?

For many firms, January signals the start of a new budget. Getting to this point usually entails putting a number of expenditure items on trial for their lives. In the case of marketing, these trials tend to be conducted by fire. There are a myriad of ways firms waste money. The two worst are to drop a match on a pile of cash or appear in legal directories indiscriminately and because other firms do.

Let’s be clear: Directories are profit-making vehicles for their publishers. To date, directories have been successful because they appeal to a competitive type of personality who either enjoys measuring themselves against others or who can’t stand not being measured against others. Either way, directories tend to appeal to egos and afford an opportunity to see one’s name or firm listed as a person or firm to watch either in print or online.

There are slews of directories. According to US-based Jaffe Associates, in 2008 there were more than 950 surveys and ranking services geared to law firms. These included the usual suspects: Chambers Global, Martindale-Hubble, Who’s Who, Rising Stars lists of all descriptions and every kind of Super, Best, and Top list imaginable splintered into numerous legal practices to boot.

In Canada, Lexpert publishes a number of directories based on peer surveys that include leading lawyers’ names for free and, for a price, can include bios, photos, firm cards and ads. Carswell publishes the less costly Canadian Law List, which is essentially a list of lawyers in Canada. Both supplement their print editions with online versions that offer additional paid opportunities to enhance lawyer and law firm listings.

Some directories have been around for a long time. Chambers Global turns 23 this year while one of its competitors, The Legal 500, is two years older. This represents a whole generation of lawyers who grew up thumbing through these tomes when they began appearing in print form well before the advent of the online age.

Falling out of favour 

Generally speaking, directories have been falling out of favour for years. Looking back to 2007, London and New York-based Acritas surveyed 500 corporate counsel about what sources influence their consideration in hiring external lawyers. At that time, only five per cent found directories relevant to this type of decision and only three per cent said they have been influenced significantly by directory information. Instead these corporate lawyers said they relied on referrals from outside law firms, colleagues, personal experience, the reputation of a firm, and publications and articles.

It’s taking a while for this reality to sink in but some firms are responding. For example, roughly 30 per cent of AmLaw 100 law firms are no longer listed in Martindale-Hubbell. One of them is Axley Brynelson LLP of Madison, Wisconsin. Managing Partner John Mitby says, “In 2010, we decided to reinvest the $25,000+ we usually spent on Martindale-Hubbell in communications channels we did see results from, including social networks, outdoor and video. In just the past five months, our website traffic increased 20 per cent. We’re receiving more quality cold email inquiries and subsequent new clients.”

For firms that simply must appear in select directories, many have chosen not to pay-to-play. In other words, they no longer pay for the privilege of submitting firm member authored articles, bios or photos. After all, why should a firm contribute content to an entity that charges what amounts to a publishing fee and also requires payment from anyone wishing to read it?

Invest in yourself 

Firms that are technologically savvy are ahead of the game. With a firm’s website being its number one marketing vehicle, the content that would have formerly been included in directories, combined with solid search engine optimization techniques will result in a do-it-yourself directory that features only you.

Also, this is where showcasing client testimonials trumps any directory ever published. That is because the claims of a satisfied client far exceed any laudatory line in a directory that proclaims all its participants to be the best of the best in one way or another. Including client testimonials also helps you mould your profile since this type of online content is controlled solely by you and costs only pennies compared to what can be paid to directories.

In addition, as Axley Brynelson’s results show, firms that employ social media tactics as well as mobile sites, news feeds, blogs, podcasts, and other online components are seeing measurable returns. As Mitby points out, people aren’t searching for lawyers in directories. He says, ”They’re searching for lawyers via Google or recommendations.” He’s right. Many legal directories began in a pre-Google age. Now Google is the world’s directory of everything and costs nothing.

That said, if the day ever comes when instead of being provided with directories of “firms to watch” we’re offered a directory of “firms to watch out for”, well, that would certainly make for a more helpful and entertaining read.

This article originally appeared in CBA National Magazine, February 2012.

Heather Suttie is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on legal market strategy and management of legal services firms.

For 25 years, she has advised leaders of premier law firms and legal service providers worldwide — Global to Solo | BigLaw to NewLaw — on innovative strategies pertaining to business, markets, management, and clients.

The result is accelerated performance achieved through a distinctive one of one legal market position and sustained competitive advantage leading to greater market share, revenue, and profits.

The effect is accomplishment of the prime objective — To Win.

Reach her at +1.416.964.9607 or

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