“He doesn’t suffer from the need to be loved.” That’s how one litigator described-one can only assume admiringly-fellow lawyer and competitor Barry Ostrager. A partner at Simpson Thacher and Bartlett, Mr. Ostrager won insurer Swiss Re’s litigation against Twin Towers leaseholder Larry Silverstein.
But for those few Manhattan lawyers who do suffer from that need, there’s Chambers USA.
In a market choked with legal directories consisting solely of the dry vitae and coordinates of the top practitioners, the book, a real doorstop at nearly 1,500 pages, has a colorful Zagat-style take on the field. It not only ranks the top dogs in each field of law, pitting them against each other in neat little blue charts, it also assesses the lawyers who make it onto its lists, complete with coddling commentary from clients and peers, like the quip about Mr. Ostrager. It’s perfect for lawyers: rational and ordered, yet gossipy in its own guarded and libel-checked way. And taken as a whole, it’s becoming the field guide par excellence to Manhattan’s legal set.
“Difficult, but effective” is the verdict on Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft’s Dennis Block, the mergers-and-acquisitions guru who represents Procter and Gamble in its acquisition of Gillette. “Blatantly aggressive,” is how “market sources” describe mergers-and-acquisition attorney Patricia Vlahakis of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz.
You can almost hear the sigh of relief when sources describe Richard Mason, a bankruptcy partner at Wachtell Lipton.
“He’s not from the yell-and-scream school of thought,” they said.
The Chambers guide to New York is a spin-off of a popular British guide to lawyers in the U.K. The U.S. version debuted two years ago with a launch party at the W Hotel in midtown to a modest reception. But only now, as Manhattan lawyers wait for the third edition to be released in May, has it emerged as the definitive ranking.
Of course, what might count as a dig elsewhere is closer to a badge of honor in the legal world.
“I wasn’t insulted,” said Mr. Ostrager of his write-up. “I suppose I might have chosen a different form of words to characterize some of my professional achievements, but I wasn’t insulted. I didn’t take it as pejorative.”
He added: “I do zealously represent my clients. Which is what lawyers are ethically obligated to do.”
Though careful readers will quickly sniff out the vestigial bitchiness in some entries, for the most part the comments are positive. This leaves Chambers open to charges (made by competitors and lawyers) that it doesn’t capture the full picture; in part because if it did-well, can you think of a quicker recipe for a lawsuit?
“The book is about lawyers who are bloody good, that’s it. If we get negative comments about people, they don’t make it into the book,” said Fiona Boxall, the guide’s crisp managing editor, over breakfast on Saturday, March 5. She was in town to find a venue for the new guide’s launch party (the W has gotten too pricey). Last year, more than 350 lawyers attended, including David Boies (first tier in litigation, second in antitrust), and partners from Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton; Weil, Gotshal and Manges; and Cravath, Swaine and Moore.
“David Boies is a sweetie, though. He really is a sweetie. He’s really been very supportive,” cooed Ms. Boxall.
According to Ms. Boxall, the point of the guides is to provide clients-Procter and Gamble, L’Oréal and American Airlines, to name some listed in Chambers-with a book that will help them find a lawyer in a different state. Hence the book’s subtitle: “The Client’s Guide.”
That way they don’t have to get a recommendation from the home firm and worry they’re just getting “somebody who’s just done a favor for their lawyer or somebody [he's] just heard of.” Every client Chambers interviews receives a copy of the guide, gratis. (They cost $250 on the company’s Web site.)
But just as Zagat has become more of a phone book than a source of ideas for a dinner out, it’s hard to imagine a sophisticated consumer flipping through a book to pick a lawyer for a complex litigation or hostile takeover.
But that hardly matters: The profession has embraced the guide, preying as it does on lawyers’ vanity and burnishing their outsized egos.
“I have lawyers calling me daily saying, ‘Where am I ranked? Where am I ranked?’” confided one marketing executive at a top-10 firm, who insisted on anonymity so as not to rub partners the wrong way.
“I certainly scan the book when it comes in; I don’t take it to sleep with me at night,” said Mr. Ostrager. “Obviously I was flattered to be ranked in the very short list of top-tier litigators in New York.”
“You do look to see what is said about lawyers, your colleagues and lawyers at other firms,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, chairman of Sullivan and Cromwell. “You do want to see what the competition is; you want to see if you think lawyers in your own firm are being fairly treated.”
He added: “Sometimes I do find them amusing, yes.”
Should visitors to the Debevoise and Plimpton Web site have any doubt about the credibility of the firm, founded in 1931, a press release reminds them that in last year’s guide, Chambers “ranked Debevoise for both Private Equity transactional and fund formation work and listed eight Debevoise partners as leading private equity lawyers.”
Beyond the rankings are the descriptions of the firm’s practice area. “It’s in a class by itself,” is a description of the white-collar crime-and-government-investigations litigation firm headed by Martha Stewart’s lawyer, Robert Morvillo. Cravath’s banking and finance lawyers are described as the “Spartan warriors of the banking world.” Cadwalader’s capital-markets-securitization attorneys are the “Rolls-Royce of mortgage-backed work.”
Boutique firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, and Friedman’s bankruptcy practice “is said to be a popular choice for clients who ‘need a bulldog to upset the apple cart.’”
“You look carefully at how your practice is characterized by Chambers,” said Joshua Peck, founder and president of Law Firm Media Professionals, a New York–based group of in-house and P.R. firm legal specialists. “The adjectives are very important.” Mr. Peck is senior media-relations manager at Duane Morris, an international Philadelphia-based AmLaw 100 firm with a 70-lawyer office in midtown.
Chambers stokes the suspense by holding a launch party where the books are covered by a sheet in the corner until midway through the party.
“In the U.K. it’s like a rugby scrum. It’s unbelievable. There’s all of these lawyers descending on this table of books. They’re grabbing it, they’re running to the side and looking through the book frantically to see where they are. It is the funniest thing ever. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen pictures of the first day of a Harrods sale-it’s just like a swarm of locusts descends on things-and that is just what it’s like,” said Ms. Boxall.
The New York gathering last year, she added: “It was kind of like that, but they were all a little bit restrained.”
Chambers’ main competitor in the field, the well-respected Best Lawyers in America, uses a peer-review process where lawyers in the previous edition give grades to nominated lawyers in their field. Marquis Who’s Who in American Law relies mostly on clippings from newspapers and magazines across the country.
While Chambers interviews lawyers and their peers at firms under consideration, the bulk of their information comes from clients, chiefly in-house counsel at major corporations.
A team of about 43 staff researchers based in the London office spend six to seven months calling thousands of clients worldwide as well as competitors to evaluate different practice areas in each state (the 2004 guide allocates about 90 pages to its New York write-up). Then the researcher has a “ranking meeting” with his or her editor to make their decisions.
Lawyers are ranked in tiers or “bands” from one to four with no limit on how many can appear; they can also receive special recognition as a “leading individual,” “senior statesman” or “up and coming.” Firms are ranked this way as well, and Chambers writes about 300 words about the firm’s practice area, and then singles out the lawyers in that group who made it onto the list with unattributed quotes and praise.
Until recently, Best Lawyers was released every two years but is now changing its schedule so that, like Chambers, it has an annual edition. It sold about 6,000 copies last year at $225 a pop. Chambers gave away thousands of the 40,000 copies they printed for free.
Unlike Chambers, though, the lawyers who make it into the guide simply get their name and firm and phone number listed. Another principal difference is that of peer versus client review. Best Lawyers calls, e-mails, or faxes lawyers listed in the guide and asks them if they would refer clients to certain people in their field. The options are: “Certainly,” “Probably” or “Would Hesitate.”
“Our feeling is obviously that any lawyer worthy of even consideration has at least some clients who think well of their practice or they wouldn’t be a partner at a major law firm. It is more challenging to get the other lawyers in the same field to say positive things about them,” said Steve Naifeh, co-editor and founder of the guides.
He added that, like with doctors, client satisfaction is often correlated with positive results. “The outcome of the case is by no means the only way to assess the ability of the lawyer,” he said.
Ms. Boxall was equally dismissive of his two-volume series, which started publishing in 1983, suggesting that her book’s researchers got better depth of information. It “comes out every two years and they send questionnaires out to lawyers in the book, and it seems to be another tick-box thing with a list of lawyers. ‘Do you recognize any of them?’ And then if some of them get a lot of ticks, they get in the book,” she said.
“This is clearly a more discriminating and more thoroughly researched exercise. They’ve obviously gone to the trouble of not only diligencing the people who they include in the various categories but distilling the commentary that they’ve received into some narrative form,” added Mr. Ostrager, jumping into the fray.
“We’ve certainly had plenty of lawyers tell us that our list is the more accurate list,” responded Mr. Naifeh. “It’s the principal referral list by many lawyers across the country.”
Jim Haley, for example, an intellectual-property lawyer at Ropes and Gray, who called The Observer at the behest of Mr. Naifeh, said he thought Best Lawyers was a tad bit more “selective.”
“Certainly when Best Lawyers calls it’s: ‘If you had a important case to whom would you refer it?’ That’s a high standard. Chambers asks who are the leading practitioners. They may be somewhat different,” he said.
But not everyone is convinced they’re so different. “To be listed in any of them is certainly an honor. It’s sort of like, do you get the Golden Globe or the Emmy? They’re both very nice recognition,” said Jonathan Lindsey, a leading legal recruiter at Major, Hagen and Africa.
Paul Salvatore, a partner in the employment and labor practice at Proskauer Rose (and ranked in the second tier in that division in Chambers), described the guide as a “collection of leading practitioners,” but mused that he wasn’t sure the Chambers guide had any concrete advantage over Best Lawyers.
“Your clients already love you-at least we hope they do,” he said. “It’s different when your competitors are being interviewed.”
He added: “I guess it’s two different approaches-that’s what makes a horse race.”
Ms. Boxall took swipes at other competitors, like Martindale-Hubbell, the venerable listing book, which has peer rating-from A to C for legal ability, and a letter V indicating a general recommendation for ethical standards.
” Martindale-Hubbell is great for what it is-a phone book. It’s every lawyer under the sun,” said Ms. Boxall. She told a story of a retired lawyer still listed with an AV rating in Martindale.
“General counsel’s not going to take that seriously,” she said.
Paul Gazzolo, chief operating officer of Lexis Nexis Martindale-Hubbell, disputed that claim.
“It’s a small minority of attorneys” who receive an AV rating, Mr. Gazzolo said, declining to disclose the percentage. “It is still respected by general counsel in corporations” and a “a consideration” in all applications to the federal judiciary.
Before launching in the U.S., Chambers had dipped its toe into the U.S. market by including lawyers from New York, D.C., Illinois, California and Texas in their global guide. In addition, many U.S. lawyers were familiar with it if they had offices abroad, which in the age of the multinational law firm, most do.
Still, when Chambers arrived, many law firms wouldn’t take their calls, assuming they were “pay to play”-i.e., that only lawyers who paid hefty advertising rates would be considered. That changed when the company released its first edition, Ms. Boxall said, and firms that didn’t participate by offering client references and making their lawyers available for interviews saw their practices characterized accurately.
Of course, like some of its competitors, including Martindale-Hubbell, offering expanded listings is how the Chambers guide makes its money.
At the end of January, law firms were told which bios Chambers would need for the guide. This is a kind of controlled leak of information: It tells firms which lawyers have made the cut, but not where they will be ranked.
It also gives the Chambers sales team an opportunity to solicit advertising from the firms-in the form of extended biographies of individuals or the firms which appear in a separate section after the Chambers write-ups. Chambers insists that if firms want to pay for extended biographies, they get solicited after their attorneys have been selected. Ms. Boxall did not respond to requests for the prices of these listings.
Best Lawyers, meanwhile, doesn’t charge for any of the information included in its guide; though when various American Lawyer Media–owned outlets reprint their lists in full they often sell expanded listings. Links to lawyers’ Web sites from Best Lawyers.com cost $100.
“I will give Chambers the benefit of the doubt and assume that their extended bios, which are their principal form of income, do not in any way affect their selection process. I assure you since I run ours that it has absolutely no effect on ours,” Mr. Naifeh.
Mr. Naifeh also criticized the core selling point of the Chambers guide, saying his books had considered adding client comments for years but had never implemented it because no ever gives entirely positive feedback-especially about lawyers.
“Most of the comments you get are ‘yes, buts.’ They’re ‘so and so was the leading expert in the field, but his practice has been slowing down recently and I’m not sure I would refer a complicated matter.’ Or ‘so and so is technically brilliant but has a hard time working with clients.’ Most of the comments are qualifications.”
He added: “The most useful comments are problematic ones from a legal perspective-from a libel perspective and a marketing perspective.”