You can’t get two clicks into the legal blogosphere today without seeing a repackaged press release from Sidley Austin. Here’s one of the headlines we received today, which blares louder than a New York City fire engine stuck in mid-tier midtown traffic:

Sidley Austin LLP has received 20 first-tier national rankings in the inaugural U.S.News – Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” survey, the most of any U.S. law firm.

Okay Sidley, we hear you; congratulations. Maybe you and Lady Gaga should confer and figure out how to get U.S. News to rank music video award shows.

Meanwhile, if you’ve spent any time clicking around the U.S. News law firm rankings since they went live last night (no, I haven’t really slept), you’ll notice that Sidley doesn’t seem to show up in the bottom right corner of the page under the heading “Featured Firm.” Instead of Sidley (or any of the other firms that garnered many first-tier practice area mentions), if you keep clicking refresh — I’ve done that about 100 times in the last hour, via multiple Firefox tabs — you see a bunch of firms that are outside the Am Law 100. And Squire Sanders.

Why aren’t the most well-respected firms the “featured” ones? The answer is obvious: the featured firms bought ads with U.S. News. Which begs the question: just how is U.S. News making money off of this exhaustive gambit into the law firm rankings market?

We talked to a few law firm sources who told us that U.S. News has been doing a full-court press, all summer, to get firms to buy ad space attached to the rankings. As we keep telling you, U.S. News is a for-profit publication (not that there’s anything wrong with that); it is not an industry watchdog or a benevolent NGO.

While U.S. News undoubtedly hopes that the rankings issues sells magazines, the real money grab here is directly with firms themselves. There are almost 9,000 firms ranked by the U.S. News, but only the ones who pay for advertising get an extra little shout-out as “featured.” Of course, the featured space is just one of many advertising options for firms looking to publicize themselves via the Best Firms list: print ads, traditional banner ads, expanded profiles, if you are a law firm with an advertising budget, U.S. News will take your phone call.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. I’m a capitalist (and while we’re here, if any firm would like to advertise with a legal website that people, you know, actually read everyday, drop us a line).

The only potential issue would be if the advertising somehow compromised the editorial objectivity of the rankings. Some of the law firm sources we spoke with expressed concern that firms who didn’t purchase ads with U.S. News would be overlooked in the rankings themselves. It’s worth noting that when you click over to the U.S. News Law School rankings, you don’t see Thomas M. Cooley Law School listed as a “featured law school.”

To figure out the interplay between U.S. News’s rankings and U.S. News’s advertisers, we went straight to the source and talked with Tim Smart, executive editor of U.S. News & World Report.

I ask Smart two questions:

(1) Is this a “pay to play” situation? Did firms need to buy an ad in order to be ranked?

(2) Is there any editorial/ranking benefit to a firm that buys an ad over a firm that does not?

Smart responded in a straightforward manner:

(1) Absolutely not. Firms bought ads based on their own decisions and the surveys and ranking process occurred independent on any sales effort.

(2) None whatsoever.

Fair enough; we expect nothing less from a publication as respected as U.S. News. Say what you will about the utility of the rankings (and people are saying a lot), but it’s undeniable that a lot of work and thought went into the production of this list. It wouldn’t make sense for U.S. News to compromise the fundamental integrity of its work to chase after a few extra dollars.

But it’s not like law firms would just give U.S. News money, so what are they getting? Smart explains:

There is a great deal of information on the site from firms that did advertise and from firms that did not. Firms were offered the opportunity to provide additional information in the form of a profile and there was a fee for that.

No sense in beating around the bush; if you want to be get on board the U.S. News bandwagon, you have to show them the money.

And of course, if you are a client looking for a law firm, you’ll need to kick in a little extra to U.S. News to see all of the information it compiled for the law firms it ranked. As with the law school rankings, you can see the top line rankings for free, but the granular information is behind a paywall. As the wise Snoop Dogg once said: “everybody got they cup but they ain’t chipped in.”

Fundamentally, U.S. News won’t make a killing off of these rankings if the rankings aren’t respected by lawyers and clients alike. That’s still the focus here; yesterday’s release is really just the first try. Going forward, we’ll see if the list rises to prominence — because that’s when the money will start rolling in.

Best Law Firms [U.S. News & World Report]

Earlier: U.S. News Launches First Official Law Firm Rankings


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