Directing debate on legal selection

The debate over the use and influence of legal directories in selecting lawyers following a survey by Wheeler Associates and McCallum Layton, How Clients Choose Their Lawyers, has thrown up some questions for all involved in the business of law.

And as the debate runs on both in the media and in the marketplace, certain key issues are in danger of being missed, or at least slow to come to the fore.

With any business win it is hard to trace all the elements involved in persuading the prospect to select one firm or lawyer. Marketeers will often say the main use of directories by prospects in their own territories is for checking credentials. In this context it is less common that directories are used as the main reference source for drawing up a list of firms to be invited to pitch in the first instance. First port of call is more likely to be a list drawn from the prospect's actual or intuitive knowledge of the suppliers in his marketplace, personal recommendations, referrals from other advisers or from trade bodies, and other third parties.

However, with searches for legal expertise in a foreign jurisdiction, the pattern of how directories are used is typically different, and this is one of the key distinctions that is in danger of becoming lost in the debate. To begin with, an essential difference from the above scenario is that many of these searches are conducted by other law firms, rather than possible buyers of legal services. This would typically be the small to medium-size firm that does not have its own overseas offices, does not have a network of “associate” relationships overseas and has an urgent need of expertise in a particular territory for a client with an international interest. It may also be an enquiry from a larger firm needing to source legal expertise in an area which it does not handle at all.

For example City lawyers may need assistance in finding a family law expert in a foreign jurisdiction, where their firm's existing overseas links are not able to help. Although not direct “potential clients” themselves, they are of course a “business prospect” as their selection obviously results in a piece of business going to the firm/lawyer selected. There will also be searches conducted by potential clients themselves.

In any event, in these scenarios, the searcher will typically have much less intuitive knowledge of the marketplace in the foreign jurisdiction and personal recommendations will often be hard to come by. The searcher is much more in the dark and is more likely to turn to a directory as a first port of call as well as looking to these sources of information to check credentials and provide the all important “endorsement”.

The debate looks set to run and run. But with clarity on the key issues to be considered, in-house marketing professionals and partners will be that much better able to analyse and distinguish the value of individual directories and to their particular business development needs.