Are the legal directories ripe for disruption?

As the first of the December deadlines is behind us for the main legal directories, partners and marketing teams across the land are reviewing the pros and cons of this far from perfect system.

Of course these arguments have been gone over time and time again in many boardrooms, but this year the debate is taking a noticeably different turn.

Three new issues are coming to the fore in discussions, and may indicate that market forces are starting to move.

First, and most important, clients are getting fed up. Getting asked to provide an occasional testimonial is one thing. Receiving several requests each year from a stream of researchers, publishers and awards organisers is another. In-house counsel are rightly getting tired of the sheer volume of requests that they are receiving.

Clients are also raising concerns about confidentiality. Interestingly, a quick search on the Law Society and SRA websites for specific practice guidance on the topic of legal directories revealed nothing. Outcome 4.1 requires that “you keep the affairs of clients confidential unless disclosure is required or permitted by law or the client consents”.

One in-house lawyer, who had been involved in directories in the past, likened this to our GPs giving our confidential data away for healthcare research - except this confidential information is not always anonymised and is not used for the greater good of the client.

Second, we are in an age when we are used to almost instant feedback on all manner of things. In the car on the way home after a cricket match, my son is able to consult his phone to see precisely how his ranking has changed in batting, bowling, economy etc - and he can immediately see whether his team has moved up or down in the league. It seems rather anachronistic that "results" published in the autumn of 2014 relate to work carried out as far back as January 2013.

Third, is that alternatives are now starting to emerge. The paid for listing element is largely redundant as better information is easily and freely available on law firm websites and LinkedIn. Google makes it easy to find a corporate lawyer in Shanghai or a property lawyer in Uruguay.

Rather than referring to an anonymous testimonial, in many cases LinkedIn can show you one or more mutual contacts who can provide you with a specific reference about how good a firm or individual lawyer is to work with. Of course these anonymous testimonials are much used on websites and marketing materials, but these could be replaced with testimonials from clients who are also prepared to provide their name.

This leaves the rankings - understandably most popular amongst those in the top tiers. At the moment there is no obvious substitute for this function. User review websites got off to an inauspicious start in the UK legal profession with Solicitors from Hell, but this is developing and could yet evolve into an option.

If lawyers could agree on a set of objective measures, preferably tailored to specific practice areas, then I imagine it would be possible to codify them. Instead of several hours spent each winter on form filling, a few moments could be spent agreeing "results" together on a mobile phone.

I suspect building the computer programme would be easier than getting universal agreement from across the legal profession, so until the directories are disrupted I had better stop dreaming and get back to these forms...

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