To be or not to be, that’s the question: Rankings and Awards

During the months of greatest impact of the pandemic in the Iberian Peninsula, law firms generally adopted a low profile focused more on solidarity actions and on supporting with the analysis of extraordinary legislative rules than on advertising their classifications in rankings or awards of the sector. Once the “new normality” has begun, we asked three experts, from Spain and Portugal, if activity has also recovered in this sense

By Desiré Vidal


“The COVID-19 crisis has caused many marketing and communication departments to be overwhelmed, and for this reason, they have decided not to participate in certain rankings. But now that this new normality is gradually settling down, I have no doubt that we will see how participation in the rankings and awards will resume. Improving their positioning will continue to be a priority objective for the firms since it is a ‘quality seal’ that helps them to position themselves in the market. In addition, it is often a requirement that many General Counsel take into account when outsourcing work, as well as other firms when they have to refer work to firms in different jurisdictions,” says Sara Santos (pictured left), partner at Venize Comunicación, a consultancy specialised in the legal sector. Susana Claudio (pictured centre), director of Bandone, agrees with her. “The firms that normally participate in legal directories investigation will continue to do so in this new normality and now with even more reasons because there is more competition for less work. Rankings can be a differentiating element from the competition and, on the other hand, can reinforce the external firm ́s image, both for the national and international markets.” Michael Heron (pictured right), founder and director of Avanlight, a legal consultancy based in Lisbon, disagrees with his colleagues since, in his experience, activity has not declined during these months of the pandemic. “My impression is that firms have continued to participate in the rankings/directories and awards. In situations where firms have lost a little bit of focus due to COVID-19, I am convinced that they will resume their activity and effort.”


“Competition between firms is undoubtedly greater in a post-COVID-19 world. When a firm achieves positive rankings and wins awards, it is obviously positive for reputation and sometimes very good for internal morale. However, with increased competition, the differentiation point is crucial, and in this sense, clients are asking for knowledge of their business sector,” Michael responds assertively. For Sara Santos, companies’ legal departments have been demanding, for some time now, new skills and values that have forced greater competition in the legal sector. “Competition between firms has grown a lot in recent years. One of the main reasons, especially in firms dedicated to business law, is that law firms have become more demanding when hiring their lawyers. They are looking for flexible, practical lawyers who have a thorough knowledge of the company and its sector, and a range of soft skills that were not previously required in a traditional lawyer. Among these requirements, in most cases, there is also positioning in recognised directories or awards. This is not only an added value but also an essential requirement.” “Being ranked in a prestigious ranking or being awarded by a recognised publication is always a very powerful branding and business development tool in the legal sector. Now, all the more reason to be. The best-positioned firms in directories see it as an added value for their strategy to attract talent, for their online positioning, for their clients and potential clients, to differentiate themselves from the competitors and to reinforce their identity within the organisation itself,” points out Susana Claudio.


Susana Claudio is clear about that. “It is more complicated to make a good submission from the inside if there are no professionals who know how to do it well. If a firm has someone with knowledge and experience in the entire international directory process, it has already earned a lot. The problem is that it is rarely like that. The same person who makes the submissions has to make proposals, presentations, etc., so it is more difficult for them to be able to dedicate the necessary time to present a good document that highlights the strengths of the lawyer or the department and can do all the follow-up. It is key that the partners know how to value the importance of these rankings to obtain good results in the directories: they are the ones who best know their clients and their operations. Depending on the weight that law firms give to this issue, lawyers will be more or less involved. International firms tend to have a more integrated approach. What I recommend is to establish a methodology or a process throughout the year to collect the issues and clients and, in this way, when thinking about the submission strategy, there is no need to start from scratch, and it makes the work easier lawyers.” “The keywords are credibility, experience and knowledge,” adds Michael Heron. “This can be held by someone inside or outside. What I do notice with my clients, is that the support we give related to the directories, allows the lawyers, internal business development teams, marketing and communication, to gain a lot of time by outsourcing this process, and get focused on other activities and projects. However, for any firm that manages submissions internally, it is essential that partners feel that the team is under control, calm, patient and know when to push and insist on how to improve. Sometimes it is essential to hire an external consultant to reaffirm the same message and help reinforce the argument that has already been communicated internally,” concludes Heron. Also, for Sara Santos the recommendation depends on each case. “If you have the necessary resources, making an in-house submission is not complicated, although not all firms have them. Making a proper submission requires a lot of dedication (time and effort). It is crucial that there is a specialised person who is exclusively in charge of making them, and that the submission does not end up being just another pain for those in charge of communications, adding to the heavy workload they handle every day. In order to prepare a good submission, it is essential to have a good understanding of how directories work and the factors that researchers take into account when evaluating firms. Their lack of knowledge (which is quite common) prevents the desired results from being achieved, which generates a lot of frustration among the firms and the partners. The problem is often that these submissions are not made with the right approach. A clear example is when they are left in the partners ́ hands, who tend to explain the issues from a very technical point of view, a widespread mistake and one that is far from what the researchers are looking for. Since, as I said before, this is a very time-consuming job (something that partners are not usually very keen on), it helps a lot to have someone from the outside to coordinate the submission process (timings, information gathering), to identify the relevant information, to guide the partners and to prepare the submission in such a way that it stands out.


“It greatly depends on the strategy of the small/medium firm. If a firm of this size tries to declare itself ‘full service’ and compete with large firms, it is a long and complicated battle. However, we have had cases of boutiques, in Portugal, and outside Iberia, that managed to position themselves first in certain practice areas with a team of less than 15 lawyers in total. It is not the most common, but it is possible,” answers Michael. “Directories are the first ones interested in positioning small and medium-sized firms to reflect the reality of the legal market,” Sara adds. “Turnover is not something that is considered as such, but a combination of different factors such as the complexity of the issues, the experience of the professionals, the size of the team, the feedback that comes from both clients and other firms in the market…etc. As for the awards, it will depend on what is asked for in each candidacy and the rules for submission. Having said that, it is true that submissions from larger firms are often ‘seen as good’ simply because they already have a reputation and are ‘easy to identify,’ while a new firm’s application has to be analysed from scratch, placed in the market, etc.” Susana Claudio claims that there is no minimum turnover for participation in legal directories. “There is no magic formula either, but in general terms, it is important to have a minimum number of cases for the area if it is presented for the first time, although I have seen some firms with a very media-friendly star case that has allowed it to enter the rankings. You have to analyse it on a case by case basis.”


“In general, ‘history’ is taken into account, so a firm should never give up if the first year does not achieve the desired positioning,” Sara Santos says. “Similarly, there are usually no drastic negative changes in the rankings (unless there are major movements), precisely because of this history.” Susana and Michael agree that the importance of the history depends on each case. “The first step is to think strategically and assess the firm’s options in a given area. It is a matter of making a realistic and objective reading. My job is also to make a firm see if it has possibilities and draw the best strategy so that it can have results in the shortest time possible if it meets the conditions. There are times when you have to wait a couple of years to get results and deal with the frustration that this causes in many lawyers,” says Susana.


When sending a submission or applying for a specific award, certain key points must be taken into account that will determine the result. The experts consulted in this article give their clues. “Try to remember that the person or researcher who reads each submission is usually someone young, under 24, with a degree, but rarely in Law, and will appreciate that simple language is used, not too technical and not too detailed. A submission is like a thread, there must always be a connection between the firm ́s description, area and lawyers, clients and current, interesting and important cases, and references from the same clients and ‘friends’ within the competition willing to validate the quality of the competition. The worst case of messing up that I have seen is when a firm refers to a big GC from a huge company that covers 40 countries and has probably 20 other firms as reference points. It is much more effective to bring in a more junior contact who will have more time and desire to respond and make a recommendation,” says Heron. “The document must be approached as if it were a proposal to a client” – adds Claudio – “think about the person who is going to read it, since sometimes they are not lawyers, summarising well and in an understandable way the work done by the firm and showing with data and messages why the firm deserves to be in that ranking or to be awarded and recognised. It is a more extensive work than simply including a list of issues and the biographies of the team. It is important to stick to the format provided by the publication: longer submissions are not necessarily better. Think about making the job easier for the researcher who has to read hundreds of documents in a short period of time. Whenever possible, sharing as much information as possible helps in the submission assessment, although sometimes, because of the sensitive nature of the issues, lawyers are reluctant to share confidential data, which prevents certain relevant issues from being assessed. Finally, two important aspects of the process are adjusting to the deadlines set by each publication and managing the expectations of the lawyers themselves concerning the results, especially if they are participating for the first time. But it should not be forgotten that appearing in a directory or not depends not only on a submission: references from clients and competitors are key data.” For Sara Santos, in addition to, of course, meeting the deadline, there are other main points to consider for both rankings and awards:

• Limit the number of lawyers you promote: a classic ruling of many firms, who believe that the more lawyers they include in the submission, the better. You have to focus on those who have a real chance and who qualify for individual prominence.
• Show the progress of the area from one year to the next: new clients, new incorporations, new services… everything that shows the researcher that there is progress from one year to the next.
• Choose your referees well: another classic mistake, to include high seniority referees thinking that it adds points. When choosing referees, the first thing you have to take into account is that they will need to answer. Another mistake is to put the same referees year after year because it is very probable that they will stop answering.
• Facilitate communication with the research team. A telephone interview, face to face or the emails exchange with the researcher can be key to solve any doubt that the researcher may have.

To read the interview in full please download issue N.96 here

Desire Vidal