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As the legal directories start getting in touch about profile pages, giving you the barest hint of the results to follow later in the summer, it can be hard to recognise that the time has come to start thinking about the next lot of submissions.

An essential part of the legal sector’s yearly calendar, directory submissions like Chambers & Partners and Legal 500 are used by clients but particularly by referrers and press, looking for a particular service or expert.  Like it or not, whether a law firm or set of barristers’ chambers, rankings are important and provide valuable collateral for marketing, tenders and bids and even PR.  They’re global and, particularly if you work internationally, provide a valuable insight into your key personnel and approach to work.

This year, as always, I was responsible for writing the directory submissions for both sets of barristers’ chambers and law firms.  A year on it’s time to start again and we must look back over the process and ask – what lessons can we learn?

The internet is full of articles, such as ours last year, covering top tips for getting directory submissions right.  Yet the most important lesson is so often overlooked.  You can put together the most comprehensive evidence for why you think you should be included but if it isn’t supported by industry opinion then you won’t get a look in.

The submission process usually consists of three parts: the submission itself, client references and (sometimes) an interview with the researcher compiling the directory.  The biggest mistake you can make is to think that your work starts with compiling the submission… that’s the easy part.

That’s why I always start work with my clients this early in the year.  It’s not because we’re super organised.  It’s because you have to do the groundwork – rather like preparing a vegetable patch.

It’s important not to overlook:

  1. Relevant, recent examples.  You may have worked on the most groundbreaking case the law has ever seen in a particular field, but if your work in the last calendar year has been dreary or un-noteworthy, you aren’t going to get a look-in.
  2. Reading the question.  There’s a reason the clever people at the directories go to so much trouble to write out templates and forms and guides for you to fill in.  It’s because nobody ever reads the questions properly.  When they say there is a word count… it’s because they expect you to stick to it.  When they say they want to understand why something is important, it’s because they want to see how you explain its relevance.  When they ask for a certain number of recent examples, it’s because they want to see how current your work is.  Come on, give them a break and play by the rules.
  3. Getting agreement.  It is naive to think that the researchers are only going to talk to the people you provide as references.  Part of the interview process is checking whether individuals and firms/sets are as ‘expert’ as they say they are.  If they ask a recognised (and listed) expert their views on ‘John Smith’ and they’ve never heard of him… there’s a fair change the researcher will draw the conclusion that his submission is, simply put, hot air. Which leads me on to the next point.
  4. Doing the groundwork.  If you have particular people in your set/firm or a practice area that you’re keen to get listed, then it needs to feature in your marketing strategy early on.  Work needs to start before the summer on making sure profiles are widely shared and supported by quality thought-leadership and external communications.

At the end of everything, the legal directories try hard to represent the industry, not to interpret it.  If you don’t get listed (and you think you should have) it will be because the industry doesn’t a) agree or (more likely) b) know.  And that’s where marketing comes in.  Setting objectives at this stage and working towards them is important.  That means not only puffing out marketing and PR hot air but making sure the business development activity is generating the ‘right kind’ of work.  That’s why the biggest lesson we’ve all learned, over the years, is the importance of the tail not wagging the dog.

What do we mean?  So many firms/sets try to get into the directories as a way of establishing a practice, rather than viewing them as validation of an existing, expert practice.  Getting the strategy right from the first is the only way to do it.  Then, making sure your submission is accurate and well-supported will ensure a successful (and deserved) ranking.

If you would need help and advice on directory rankings or supporting strategic planning/review, please get in touch.

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