Biglaw, Midsize Firms / Regional Firms, Rankings, Small Law Firms, U.S. News, U.S. News Law Firm Rankings

U.S. News Launches First Official Law Firm Rankings

We told you this day would come. Way back in July 2009, we reported that the rankings behemoth, U.S. News & World Report, would soon be ranking law firms. In February 2010, we reported that the American Bar Association — so toothless in the face of U.S. News’s law school rankings — was worried about how this new U.S. News product would affect the profession.

Well, for better or for worse, the day has finally arrived. As of midnight (give or take a few minutes), U.S. News went live with rankings of 8,782 firms across 81 different practice areas. From their press release:

These inaugural rankings, which are presented in tiers both nationally and by metropolitan area or by state, showcase 8,782 different law firms ranked in one or more of 81 major practice areas. Full data is available online for the law firms that received rankings, from the largest firms in the country to hundreds of one-person and two-person law firms, providing a comprehensive view of the U.S. legal profession that is unprecedented both in the range of firms represented and in the range of qualitative and quantitative data used to develop the rankings.

It’s like Christmas morning — if only Santa were a jolly red prestige whore. Let’s get to it…

The rankings are live, and this link should take you to them.

But before we dive headfirst into the rankings, let’s remember why we’re here:

The mission of Best Law Firms from the start has been to help guide referring lawyers and clients – from the country’s largest companies needing corporate legal advice to individuals needing to get a divorce or write a will – issues that have a bet-the-company implication (in the case of a corporation) or a potentially life-changing result (in the case of an individual).

The money word: “clients.” Because if clients, big or small, rich or middle-class, take the U.S. News Best Law Firm rankings with anything approaching the faith with which prospective law students take the U.S. News Law School rankings, it’s a game changer. A total game changer. You think that a corporate GC wants to sit in front of his board and argue that they should give their bet-the-company matter to a firm that U.S. News ranks as “second tier”?

Sure, in the past month we’ve heard every practicing attorney talk about how the decision of a client to trust a group of lawyers to handle their most sensitive legal business is far more personal than the decision of a law student about where to go to school. But I’ll bet that 40 years ago, some law school dean was arguing that an adult would never make a crucial decision about where to spend the next three years of his or her life based on a list in a magazine.

Even if the Best Law Firms list doesn’t penetrate the popular consciousness when it comes to client choices, you can be sure that new law graduates will be paying attention to the rankings, especially top law school graduates. Remember, a lot of these people have been prestige whores their entire lives. What, you think people actually prefer living in New Haven or Cambridge, as opposed to freaking Miami?

U.S. News told them where to go to college, U.S. News told them where to go to law school, and now U.S. News is going to tell them where to work when they graduate. Once U.S. News releases its Best Cemetery rankings, the circle will be complete.

Something tells me these kids will willingly sign up for another round — at least until they go somewhere, get Lathamed, and only then learn that U.S. News doesn’t include “happiness” in its methodology.

So yeah, these rankings could be a very, very big deal. Here’s the methodology U.S. News used.

Enough rambling preamble. The links should be working by now. Let’s take a look. (Keep hitting refresh for updates).

UPDATE: Here are some first impressions from the rankings:

1. U.S. News has not made one combined national ranking. Instead they divided everything up by practice areas. That’s great news for… Vault! Vault remains the most prominent organization to do a strict numerical ranking of law firms. So if you are a law student who is only concerned with going to the “most prestigious” firm in the country that will have you, Vault is still the only one that has your back.

2. U.S. News went with a tier structure instead of a “first-to-worst” rank. That’s great news for… law firms. Now, many more firms have the opportunity to call themselves “top-tier,” without having to quibble about whether they are “number one” or “number who cares.” Don’t think that’s important? Ask Georgetown University Law Center how much they would like to call themselves “top tier” instead of “number 14.”

UPDATE: Perhaps more useful than the full tiered rankings by practice group are the full firm profiles. I clicked on my old firm, Debevoise & Plimpton (because I’m a narcissist). The spread of where they are tier 1 (or not) immediately feels like you are learning more about the particular firm then just seeing them ranked “tier one” in some random category. Click here for Debevoise’s profile and let us know about interesting (good or bad) profiles in the comments.

UPDATE: Just gchatting with David Lat (when you come to ATL, you get 24/7 service), and the obvious analogy for these U.S. News Best Firm rankings is not Vault, it’s Chambers. Chambers has pioneered the “tiered, by practice group” approach. That said, Lat points out that U.S. News clearly put a lot of work into these lists, with testimonials from clients and everything.

It’s pretty obvious that the target audience for these rankings are clients looking to hire law firms, not lawyers looking to figure out which law firm to work for.

UPDATE: In the morning, when the rest of the world has a chance to digest these rankings, a lot of people are going to be asking: Why did U.S. News abandon its successful strategy of publishing a strict ranking for this tiered structure? I think there are a few possible answers:

1. Reach. U.S. News wanted to make as many firms feel included as possible. If they had given us the top 100 firms (like we wanted), then *only* the couple hundred firms that had a chance to ever make that list would really care about the rankings. By doing it this way, there are now thousands of firms who have a stake in moving up this U.S. News list.

2. Clients. The Am Law 200 or the Vault rankings are classic “by lawyers, for lawyers” kinds of lists. Fortune 500 companies can afford to hire the firms in the Vault 100. Most companies and individuals can’t. If U.S. News can provide a service to anybody (be they a big business, small business, or entrepreneur) looking to hire a law firm — much like the law school rankings provide a service to anybody interested in going to law school — then U.S. News wins.

3. Credibility. I just took a quick browse through the M&A rankings. Most of the names you’d expect are ranked in “tier 1″ — Wachtell, Cravath, DPW, yada yada. Then there are some other tier 1 firms, like Foley & Lardner and Fulbright. Fair enough; I’m sure those firms have great M&A practices.

But can you imagine if U.S. News did numerical rankings and Foley’s practice ranked ahead of Davis Polk? No matter what U.S. News said in its methodology, the rankings would immediately lose credibility. It would be as if the Cooley Law School rankings listed Cooley Law School at #12. Basically, there are things that we all think we “know” — and if a list comes out that turns what we know on its head, we tend to distrust the list, instead of adjusting our thinking.

Now, flip that around and look at U.S. News law school rankings. At some point, the thought that a school like NYU had a law school on par with an old, established, Ivy League school like Columbia would have seemed ridiculous. But U.S. News had already established credibility with their law school rankings so when they told us that, actually, NYU Law is just as good as Columbia. So we, the public, accept it.

But with law firms, U.S. News didn’t have the credibility in the field to risk telling us anything that we didn’t already know. They can’t tell us that Foley is “better” (however defined) than DPW, because most people just wouldn’t believe it. They’ve got to establish that their rankings actually have something to do with reality before they can start messing around and giving us the kind of controversial lists the law school rankings excel at.

Again, these are just initial thoughts. Let us know what you think in the comments. We’ll undoubtedly have more coverage tomorrow.

UPDATE: How is U.S. News going to monetize these rankings? Read more here.

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

Earlier: U.S. News to Rank Law Firms: Will Give Legal Prestige Whores ‘Cradle-to-Grave’ Service
U.S. News to Rank Law Firms, and Now the ABA Is Concerned

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