Publishers of the big two legal directories, Chambers & Partners and The Legal 500, would have us believe that all lawyers have one day a year marked in red in their collective diaries.
This is the day when members of the legal world find out where they are ranked in the directories, and by implication the eyes of their peers, with the publication of the new editions.
However, while there can be few law firms or in-house legal departments that do not have a copy of Chambers & Partners or The Legal 500 somewhere on their shelves, a report published last year seemed to show that the directories were not being used for their primary purpose of helping businesses to choose lawyers.
The survey, conducted by market researcher Wheeler Associates (The Lawyer, 1 November 1999), found that while it costs law firms a considerable amount of money to put in entries to the directories, the influence of the directories on potential clients is minor.
Among the blue-chip and FTSE 100 clients surveyed by Wheeler, just 5 per cent of respondents felt that directories were "very important" when selecting law firms for advice, while nearly 50 per cent said they were "not important at all" or "not very important".
And clients still appear to feel the same way. Roger Munger, head of transaction management at investment bank ABN Amro Equities Holdings (UK), sums up the feeling among in-house lawyers. "We never use directories. I use Chambers to hold things down and flatten out crumpled paper, but I never use directories [for anything else]," he says.
On the surface, though, it is business as usual for the directories. Legal practices say more are calling them up this year than ever before to ask for money and information, and firms continue to spend around £150,000 a year for a mention in them.
While the heralded mass exodus of legal practices from the pages of directories never happened, there are indications that a more subtle departure is taking place.
The Wheeler survey showed that Chambers & Partners was the most popular directory – almost 37 per cent of respondents saw it as the best directory for identifying law firms and individual lawyers.
But Kevin Wheeler, principal of Wheeler Associates, argues that even Chambers has been hit by adverse publicity surrounding the report. "It is interesting to note that, compared with last year's directory, the number of pages of paid-for entries has decreased some 16 per cent," says Wheeler.
Wheeler says firms may be shrinking the size of their entries to save money while they wait to see if a big player pulls out altogether, opening the floodgates for a mass withdrawal. He thinks it would take a magic circle firm to lead this march, and claims that some are considering doing just that.
And his views would seem to have some credence. A marketing manager at a top 10 firm says her department keeps vacillating between whether or not to pull out of all directories, and is currently in the middle of an internal row over the issue, although she does say: "I'm sure we'll end up [paying for contributions in] them, because everyone else does."
But the magic circle may be setting a new trend of departing from directories in a piecemeal manner. "We've used fewer directories this year than previously," says Catherine Byard, a senior business development manager at Clifford Chance in charge of the firm's directory entries. "We get requests every day [to pay for entries]. We've put a huge amount of effort into directories, but we're now generally reducing our spend on them.
"We're also being very picky about which ones we subscribe to. It's the same for most of the magic circle. They don't really add value, and directories where you have to pay to put entries in are a bit strange anyway."
Byard also questions the accuracy of the analytical side of directories, some of which include sections on the value of practices and lawyers, grading each practice according to its worth. "There are frustrations here when it's obvious that the research that has been given to directories has been skimmed over at best," she says. "Their knowledge and understanding of the industry sometimes means they let themselves down. It's obvious to people in the profession that they're out of touch."
A press officer at another magic circle firm says the opinion sections of directories are an irrelevance. "I find it hard to believe that people will come to you because you get a good ranking," she says.
She argues that the Martindale-Hubbell International Law Directory is probably the most useful choice in the market because it just lists telephone numbers, with only brief objective notes on lawyers and their practices.
A spokesman for Hammond Suddards Edge says: "Directories are now on their way out. The legal directories may have held some sway in the decision-making process for clients 10 years ago, but the purchasers of legal services are far more sophisticated now."
So apart from boosting and bursting egos across the legal market, is there any value in the directories' ranking sections?
Peter Coleman, director of marketing at DLA, says: "Presumably someone will get value out of them, but who? If law firms are doing it to compare themselves to other law firms, then what benefit is that? The product should be for clients to use as a preferential base."
Robert Ralphs, a senior clerk at One Essex Court chambers, argues that directories tend to have a similar effect on barristers. "There is an ego trip involved to see how well your chambers is doing," says Ralphs.
A senior clerk at another chambers says: "I'd like to see the back of directories. They're an unnecessary distraction. We take a lot of time and care putting together submissions, but it's just keeping up with the Joneses. It is not what barristers' chambers are about – we should be doing cases."
He is not alone in his view. David Grief, senior clerk at Essex Court Chambers, says: "If it was up to me, I'd rather not have directories. The amount of time it takes us is incredible. But we have to do it. We wouldn't lose a lot of work if we pulled out, but members of chambers like to see themselves in there."
Teresa Sandon, editor of The Legal 500, says: "I think [the Wheeler survey] has not had much of an impact." But Michael Chambers, who owns Chambers & Partners and who took over its running, views the report as so significant that the very first page of his directory talks of nothing else.
But rather than wanting directories to justify their existence, legal practices just want to know how best to market themselves. For the moment, the big two remain in place.
The dark horse in the race is the New City Media Insiders' Guides, which takes a novel sector-based approach and does not focus primarily on in-house lawyers. "We spend all year researching client names, and have over 50,000 names of buyers of legal services on our database," says Mark Brandon, director of New City Media. "Our commercial property book went to over 7,000 clients in the property industry and to major property users. When we went to Mipim earlier this year, all the clients we met had a copy of the guides."
But for many the answer is greater use of the internet. Byard argues that a better way for Clifford Chance to market itself than through directories is with constantly updated publications on its own website. She says: "You will see a greater increase in [Clifford Chance's] use of the web."
Coleman goes even further, suggesting that the top City practices should cut out directories altogether by converging their websites. "Most firms have a website, and when you look at the e-business world, you wonder whether you're reaching a point where you have to think about a link with these publications if you are to compete on a global basis," he says.
If directories are to survive in the new e-business world, Chris Owen, senior clerk at 7 Bedford Row, argues that they need to make better use of the internet. "I think the internet is the way forward. We don't just want a carbon copy of what directories like Chambers & Partners are doing. Rather, we want to see something interactive. How can you rely on something that is 12-18 months out of date?" says Owen.
Chambers & Partners refuses to comment on how regularly it updates its directory website, but Sandon at The Legal 500 admits that it only does so once a year.
Derek Benton, managing director of internet-based lawyer locater Martindale-Hubbell, argues: "Our product is defined on the internet. It is both different and more flexible." Benton claims his website is updated monthly and is accessed by millions of people every week.
The legal industry's response to the new directories shows that, although in their current form they are being allowed to exist, this may not continue indefinitely.
If they do hope to have a role in the future legal market, they should focus more on the internet and less on thick, glossy books crammed full of subjective editorial comment.