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Legal league tables explained: How to perform and excel in the vicious / virtuous circus

Law firm lawyer role model
Law firm lawyer role model
Most lawyers will publicly decry that they have any emotional attachment to their firm’s league table position; in truth (or with time) almost every lawyer ends up caring about it anyway. But whether this competition is healthy and a realistic measure of performance is another question.

Lawyers love to compete. At heart many enter law because they love a good battle of wits and to prove that they can out-argue, out-draft and out-structure the opposition.

That’s how it starts anyway but all too often young lawyers entering in law firms get bitterly disappointed by the relative absence of jurisprudential glamour and adversarial battles of wit they were expecting (a certain macho legal dramedy may have something to answer for there, more recently).

New outlets must then be found for young lawyers’ competitive drive, and often the target is deal size. At meet-ups with your old law school buddies, you may start measuring and comparing and the game of “mine is bigger than yours” can start in earnest. (Yes, one would assume that this game is more popular among male associates).

The logical endgame to this, once you become a partner, is the league table: the year’s subtotal of all the “mine is bigger than yours” deals.

Even lawyers who don’t really want to play the game, subconsciously and inevitably get drawn into it by Facebook updates from rivals, a client mentioning a league table in passing, or just the internal pressure for validation within the firm, or to get a perspective against the rest of the market, which is often hard to find when stuck in the middle of the latest deal.

So, sooner or later, many lawyers secretly start wishing that they too were doing more of the $100m deals, suddenly embarrassed by ‘just’ another $5m takeover they were previously perfectly happy working on.

Ecosystemic

A number of companies are happy to fill the demand for legal metrics. Mergermarket and Bloomberg produce the more popular ones in the legal adviser M&A space in India, while Dealogic produces reasonably popular (and possibly the only) project finance rankings and Venture Intelligence and VCCEdge focus on the PE/VC side, as well as some M&As, and PRIME does capital markets. Lending advisory rankings are also floating around.

For these companies, the league tables are little more than a PR exercise to encourage lawyers, bankers, clients and readers of articles about the league tables to buy their services, which are mostly centred around financial data collection and analysis (or “intelligence” as it’s called in the business).

The media, particularly the trade media such as the good online publication you’re currently perusing, is of course happy to lap up the league tables, as they generate highly popular (and admittedly, fairly easy) editorial.

This then increases the pressure on lawyers to care about the league tables and their deal sizes, even if they don’t want to, which makes the league tables even more popular, which encourages more companies to offer more league tables, which increases the angst on lawyers that they’re not well-ranked in the latest league table.

It is a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on your opinion.

However, there is one thing that is often happily glossed over by all parties involved in this equation. Legal advisers’ league tables are not all about the legal work.

Creating a new league table is pretty hard work, all around. The intelligence provider has to do the research, which is often a laborious data entry and collation exercise, relying in part on monitoring deal reports in the media and chasing companies for information directly relating to deals in the public domain.

But usually that only unearths the tip of the deal iceberg in India, many of which go unreported. The most significant data sets for the league tables come from law firms directly, according to conversations I’ve had with several insiders.

Success in the league table game then, does not necessarily boil down to how busy and successful a firm is in a specific area, but how well-oiled its internal machine is.

Making the wheel turn

In an increasing number of law firms in India it is the job of the PR, business development (BD) or marketing department (or sometimes that of a hapless associate), to push the firm as highly as possible in whichever rankings the firm feels it wants to shine in.

There’s a bit of a science to this, though it’s not complex. The first step is for management and the BDs to bully all the partners to immediately tell the BD if they have closed a deal. One difficulty here is that many clients do not necessarily give permission allowing the law firm to trumpet its involvement in a deal, and that some partners may not care about league tables or may be too busy to comply.

Whenever the information is in, by hook or crook, the BD department will then have to convert this into whatever format each intelligence provider likes, and email it to them.

When the rankings are about to come out, some firms may also decide to call the intelligence provider to convince them to include just one more deal in the rankings, even though it may have only worked on the deal for 10 minutes. Sometimes this too works.

But while this does not mean that a firm can get ranked highly if it hasn’t actually done a single deal, the system can be massaged – in fact, arguably, the system must be massaged in order to be successful in it.

Some firms do still pop up in the rankings, seemingly out of nowhere in some years, or drop off the radar in one league table while continuing in others, and several years ago, most of the Indian legal adviser league tables were rather gappy, often leaving out significant players.

But as domestic law firms have learned to play the game, or been forced to by their competitors and the media, we are now at a point at which we are approaching some realism in the published figures for the larger firms.

And despite all the somewhat puerile competition of this league table circus, that increase in transparency about what the firms get up to, should be considered a net positive for clients, the legal profession, and of course yours truly (the legal journalists).

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