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Further thoughts on shared evaluations of law firms

“If just a handful of legal departments within the Fortune 500 were to agree to use a publicly available law-firm evaluation system, it would be a tremendous resource that would benefit everyone who hires outside counsel.” Jeff Carr, the hyperactive general counsel of FMC Technologies, writes this in the ACC Docket, Vol. 27, May 2009 at 70, and envisions outside counsel benefiting from “terrific feedback” and legal departments benefiting from “honest, credible opinions.” Carr has pushed the idea of collective and public law-firm ratings for more than five years (See my post of July 21, 2005: Zagat ratings of firms on a website; and March 20, 2008: benefits of shared evaluations.).

Without giving odds on whether such a collective activity will ever get off the ground, here are some thoughts of the data in such a system:

Partner data. The comments would have to be specific to a lawyer in a firm, I believe. For nearly all matters except the largest, it is an individual partner who makes the difference. That being true, it is still possible to aggregate all comments about partners in a firm, but that would be like aggregating reviews of different dishes at a restaurant into a single restaurant evaluation.

Reliable data. How do you assure the public that the comments about a law firm are objective (See my post of March 11, 2009: gaming and manipulating with 12 references.)? Firms would devote huge amounts of creativity, effort and influence to boosting their ratings or diminishing the ratings of other firms (See my post of April 6, 2007: manipulation by crowd-hacking of collective online evaluations.). Controversy will dog any specific references. Comments will engender the problems of Twitter or Avvo: someone will take offense (See my post of March 14, 2006: shared evaluations of law firms.).

Better data than in publications. A number of publications rate law firms according to various systems (See my post of Oct. 22, 2008: published law firm ratings with 11 references.). An online system would have to improve on those magazines and directories.

Sufficient data. If in-house counsel rarely take the time to evaluate their firms privately, why would they do so publicly (See my post of Nov. 16, 2005: evaluations of law firms with 9 references.)?

Operational data. It will prove difficult to come up with a rating system other than very broad, multiple-choice attributes like “knowledge of the law,” “Responsiveness,” and “Bench strength.” The online information will need to be more nuanced for it to be helpful to buyers or sellers of legal services.