There is a small-firm lawyer I know who does not appear to me to be super at anything, other than perhaps being super-gross (yes, I am aware that I speak like a little girl on the playground). I recall a meeting in his office wherein he used his pen to clean his teeth, which resulted in his pen exploding on his shirt. Undeterred by his mess, this man continued to advocate for his client by explaining to me “all’s” he knew about a certain subject. As I was getting up to leave that meeting, I saw several wall mountings that indicated that he had been selected for inclusion in the SuperLawyers listing for several years in a row.

That experience made me wonder whether the SuperLawyers list, at least when it comes to small-firm attorneys, was somewhat less than “super.” Indeed, I felt that small-firm lawyers were disproportionately recognized as SuperLawyers. Who does not know a small-firm attorney selected for inclusion in that list?

So I decided to expose the SuperLawyers conspiracy….

According to my conversation with Cindy Larson, the Editorial Director-Research for SuperLawyers, the SuperLawyers list contains a balanced representation of both small-firm and Biglaw attorneys. Darn.

Larson explained the three-step selection process.

First, lawyers are able to nominate their colleagues for inclusion in the Candidate Pool. Nominations are capped so the nomination process does not become a popularity contest. Clients and others are also able to nominate attorneys for inclusion in the Candidate Pool.

Second, independent researchers at SuperLawyers evaluate the Candidate Pool based on twelve indicators of peer recognition and professional achievement: verdicts and settlements; transactions; representative clients; experience; honors and awards; special licenses and certifications; position within law firm; bar and or other professional activity; pro bono and community service as a lawyer; scholarly lectures and writings; education and employment background; and other outstanding achievements.

Third, the top-rated attorneys from the first two phases are put through a peer review based on their practice area.

To determine the final list, candidates are grouped by firm size, and those with the highest point totals from each category are selected.

The process, according to Larson and the SuperLawyers website, has been validated by courts and bar associations throughout the country.

Okay, so the list is balanced between small-firm attorneys and Biglaw attorneys. Is it, however, more important to small-firm attorneys? Indeed, it is often said that small-firm attorneys are chosen based on who they are, while in many instances Biglaw attorneys are selected based on the reputation of their firm.

Inclusion in the SuperLawyer list certainly brings visibility to those small-firm attorneys and enhances their reputations. According to Larson, the SuperLawyers list reaches more than 15,000,000 readers. Thus, inclusion on the list serves the function of a large marketing department, something many small-firms lack.

And could it be easier for small-firm attorneys to make it on the list? The selection process compares attorneys in a given practice area based upon firm size. This means that Biglaw attorneys are compared to other Biglaw attorneys and small-firm attorneys against small-firm attorneys. Since there is no way for the SuperLawyers research team to distinguish between “high-end” small-firms (i.e., those firms that often work opposite Biglaw attorneys, hail from prestigious law schools, have a certain reputation, etc), a good small-firm attorney may have a slight advantage when it comes to reaching the top of the Candidate Pool.

Clearly, a small-firm attorney has much to gain from being included on the SuperLawyers list. I asked Larson if she had any tips for how to get on this list. Her answer: be a good lawyer and be a good member of the bar, since clients and colleagues nominate you.

In sum, all’s I know is that Mr. Exploding Pen must have been a damn good lawyer, and small-firm attorneys should aspire to be super.


When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.


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