Participation Trophies

February 1, 2022

Key Takeaways:

  • The number of lawyer awards and directories has exploded in recent years and, in a remote/virtual environment, clients are using them as external validators.
  • Some programs are much more credible than others.
  • Firm leaders and marketing chiefs should decide which are worth pursuing and communicate that as firm policy.

While, for most of the world, “awards season” is associated with Oscar-watching parties and celebrities on red carpets, in the legal profession, February signals the start of solicitations and submissions for an ever-expanding set of directories and recognition programs for lawyers. The sheer volume of possible awards and superlatives — who doesn’t want to be Best, Leading and Super? — can make it seem nearly impossible to be planful or strategic about which ones are worth pursuing.

Instead, many firms wind up swinging back and forth between “all” and “nothing,” starting out the year with a strict policy of not buying into the various pay-for-play honorific programs that bombard their lawyers and marketers with emails and then, over time, watching their resolve erode as individual partners use their personal marketing budgets to secure their own spots. Meanwhile, the exact opposite tends to happen with the no-charge-to-participate editorial and research-based recognition programs. Firm marketing departments begin the year with an ambitious calendar of opportunities to pursue and then, as deadlines approach, come to the painful realization that these “free” programs aren’t truly free, either: They require a tremendous investment of time from both marketers and lawyers. Lawyers are busy; marketers can’t get their attention in time to secure client references or recent matter details. Pretty soon, their carefully built strategy of helping top performers build their platforms by racking up high-profile awards falls by the wayside.

Tempting as it might be to give up on planning a firm-wide awards program, there are some compelling reasons to take a thoughtful approach to managing submissions and nominations.

First, in the absence of in-person networking opportunities like conferences and galas, attorneys need other ways to establish credibility with the executives and in-house counsel likely to hire them. While nothing can fully replace the confidence built through personal connections, the most important factors used in selecting outside counsel — the individual lawyers’ expertise and the firm’s overall reputation — are exactly the information that is validated through the most credible legal directories and recognition programs. Having the right external validators featured prominently on attorney bios and LinkedIn pages helps bring in new business. The clearest and best-documented example of this: 90% of Chambers-ranked lawyers say that their listing is directly connected to originating and winning new business.

Second, as corporate buyers of legal services increasingly look to include diversity metrics in their decision-making, awards and directory listings can help build the credibility of lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds who might not have had full access to other networking and relationship-building venues. As firms more consciously work to present diverse teams of lawyers in their RFP responses and pitches, it is important to do so in ways that underline how and why these teams are the best fit for the work at hand. The awards listed on an attorney’s bio (especially practice area-specific ones like Law360’s Rising Stars and MVPs recognitions) speak to expertise in a particular industry or area of law, and make clear the substantive value he or she brings to a trial or deal team.

Which Awards Are Worth Pursuing?

Chambers rankings are the gold standard in law firm recognitions. The Chambers & Partners independent research process is both rigorous and historically uncorruptible, driven by input from the business clients who hire lawyers and firms to handle high-stakes matters. Assembling submissions for consideration by Chambers is time-consuming, detail-oriented work that requires extensive attorney participation, but, for the 2% of firms worldwide who attain these rankings, the payoff is clear. Corporate executives and general counsel regularly turn to the Chambers directories to see which lawyers and firms are the very best at what they do.

At the bottom of the heap are the least reputable (and endlessly proliferating) pay-to-play awards programs that often exist as little more than a poorly designed website or a mail-order plaque provider. A constantly updated list of these “Spammy/Scammy” programs is maintained on a very handy Google sheet created by law firm website designers FirmWise and edited by a community of conscientious legal marketers. If you or a colleague receive an invitation to participate in an awards program and you’re not sure whether it’s worth pursuing, make this reference your first stop.

In the vast middle ground between these two extremes are a host of other opportunities and options. Legal industry publications, such as Law360, the National Law Journal and Corporate Counsel have their own slate of programs, easily researchable on their websites and highly visible and credible within the profession. Local legal publications, like our hometown Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, typically have their own well-respected “40 Under Forty” list and other honors too, as do virtually all the national, state and local bar associations. Beyond the legal industry, local-market business publications such as Crain’s or your city’s business journal have their own recognition programs for notable professionals. And many trade and industry groups have similar programs to honor standouts in their field. In general, an awards program is as credible as the organization putting it on — and if the organization’s sole purpose is to distribute awards, it’s probably not worthy of participation or investment.

What Goes Into an Awards Strategy?

Begin by considering your clients and potential clients. What do they value? Whose opinions do they trust? Where are they geographically?

If your target clients are tech company founders in Austin, they probably aren’t going to be terribly impressed that you’ve earned an accolade from Law360 — a publication they’ve likely never heard of — but it might be very meaningful to them to know that you were lauded as a member of the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s A-List of business innovators.

By contrast, if your firm’s clients tend to be large company GCs, seeing one of your young partners celebrated in Bloomberg Law’s “They’ve Got Next” 40 Under 40 list might boost their confidence that your firm has the depth of talent to meet their ongoing needs.

A comprehensive awards program will include a mix of local and national awards, but every award on your list should be there for a reason.

As you consider possible awards (and researching and compiling their submission requirements and deadlines is an excellent research project for a marketing coordinator or administrative assistant to take on), you’ll note that some require extensive entries, multiple letters of reference and tons of documentation. Others simply ask for a one-page form. As a point of reference, the average Chambers submission is said to take 60 hours to assemble. So consider the time and resources you have to devote to handling submissions. Seeking out only the most prestigious and highly competitive national awards might mean investing a lot of work that doesn’t yield any wins.

As you build your list of possible awards and recognitions to pursue, consider your potential nominees for each one. Awards can be a “reward” for your superstars. But they can also be an enticement for a rising star or future leader who has a lot of potential. Awards also tell a story to the market about who you see as the “faces of your firm.” Age, gender, race and other ways those lawyers identify matter to that story. The awards you seek and hopefully win should reflect where you see your firm heading, not just where it has been in the past.

Next — and this is critical — seek input and buy-in from the lawyers you’d likely put forward. Do they have time to do the necessary work? Can you assure them that they’ll receive the marketing support they might need to get submissions done? Do they understand the criteria for winning the proposed recognitions and why you think they’re good candidates?

Think about these questions from a policy perspective too. Does your firm have a written policy about how nominees are chosen? Can people be nominated more than one year in a row? Who will resolve disputes over selections? Just like hiring and promotion decisions, these choices should be logically consistent and defensible. Does your selection of award nominees pass an equity test? If you visualize a positive end result — a collage photo of a year’s worth of award winners — does it present an image of your firm that matches the markets you serve?

Putting the Strategy Into Action

Think about your awards program as a project that requires year-round management. The better you plan ahead, the less last-minute scrambling you will do at midnight before the deadline.

Here’s some tactical guidance for the marketers and committee leaders you’ll task with executing the strategy you’ve developed:

Create systems to lighten the load. How will you collect the information for nomination forms? Who will write the narratives? What will the approval process look like? How will you organize files so that you can access them easily, and where will you store instructions for uploading nominations? Each outlet has its own quirky process. Who are the contacts for these awards? Are there components (such as headshots and bios) you can gather in a single place?

Calendar your deadlines and work backward. Consider how many people will have to review nominations. Do you need to seek references? How can you prepare those folks to speak on the nominee’s behalf?

Keep bios and recent matters up to date for all lawyers so that you can rely on information on the website to fill in nomination forms.

Use award wins to create content. Design a process for promoting award winners on the firm website and social channels. How will the firm celebrate awards internally? Who will make sure the awards and badges or other images get added to the lawyer’s website bio and LinkedIn page?

Reflect and Adjust

Being strategic with your awards program will require flexibility and continuous improvement. At the end of a year’s worth of submissions, schedule a meeting to evaluate how things went. Wins and losses are important, of course, but so too are efficiency, fairness and returns on investment. Ask the stakeholders what the firm could do differently in the coming year to further improve and streamline your program.

Ultimately, your awards program should serve a clear function and have measurable outcomes. If its only result is a growing collection of participation trophies, you really haven’t won anything.