The other day I got a ‘personal and confidential’ letter from Martindale Hubbell. My name and address appeared at the top, but the letter was addressed "Dear Legal Professional." It asked me to anonymously assign rankings to 55 attorneys who practice law in New Orleans. I’ve filled out many of these surveys in the past fifteen years, carefully pondering what rank to assign to each attorney. This time I quickly scanned over the 3 pages of names, concluded I didn’t know enough to make judgments about most of them, then tossed the survey into the garbage.
At one point the lawyer rankings were actually of some use, at least to lawyers (I don’t think they were ever of use, or even supposed to be of use, for clients). Martindale’s lawyer biographies have become the equivalent of a publication like "Who’s Who in the 70118 Zip Code" that vain people purchase to display on their bookshelf, but which no one actually uses for information-gathering. Obviously, the Internet has been chiefly responsible for the diminishing utility of Martindale’s books. Most lawyers and law firms have their own websites with detailed biographical information, which can updated on the fly. Martindale books only come out once a year, and having your biographical information listed there is expensive.
I suppose that Martindale would argue that the anonymous lawyer rankings are unique and have no equivalent on the internet, mostly because of the careful method by which they are compiled. Perhaps, but then maybe not. Let’s take a look at the choice one has in assigning rankings to lawyers:
A – From Very High to Preeminent
B – From High to Very High
C – From Good to High
Notice anything strange? Anything missing? The ranking choices are obviously incomplete; yet these are the rankings that have always been used.
Where, for example, is ranking for "Incompetent to Not-So-Great"? How about some D and F rankings? They don’t exist and never have. The Ethical Standards that are assigned to lawyers by the folks at Martindale are also somewhat incomplete, e.g.:
V – Very High, and
X – Does Not Meet Ethical Criteria
Does an ‘X’ rating mean a lawyer is unethical? Or does it simply mean that he or she doesn’t meet the ‘Very High’ criteria? No one really knows, although it is considered bad to not get at ‘V’ rating. Seems to me that Martindale might be hedging its ethics ratings to avoid offending lawyers, or at least to avoid getting sued and having its rating system examined in litigation brought by a maligned attorney. Admittedly, I don’ t really know why Martindale adopted the system that it still uses. But it’s pretty clear that Martidale’s system is now of limited value, certainly for most lawyers.
If I want to know ‘the scoop’ on opposing counsel, then I’ll (1) check their website/blog (if they have one) and then (2) email a few friends and perhaps lawyers who’ve opposed them in other cases (which I can easily find from services like PACER). The only reason I ever used Martindale (back in the dinosaur days when I graduated from law school) was to get information about where the person went to law school, or who they clerked for if they had a judicial clerkship.
I don’t think I ever paid much attention to the lawyer rating, although I do remember thinking that if someone had a C-rating that was not good. If I remember how the rating system works, you don’t even get a rating for the first 5 years after you become a member of the bar. By then most lawyers seem to qualify for at least a B-rating. And if you work in a prestigious firm the chances are you will inherit an A-rating just by working there.
In short, the Martindale ratings are of limited value for lawyers, and probably have no value for clients –if they even know about the rankings. Potential clients are more likely to simply ‘google’ for information about an attorney than turn to Martindale. Google-happy clients can’t get to Martindale’s online information database unless they navigate first to martindale.com and use the search feature there. Google doesn’t crawl the Martindale site, and so no amount of querying in Google will lead to information stored in the Martindale database.
How lame is that? Who would compile a database of information, put it on the web, but not make it searchable by Google? I think I’ve answered that question before.