Toby Brown of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog recently posted The Lawyers’ Fear of Accountability, which expands and comments on my recent post, Does Defining Good Service Scare Clients and Lawyers? A Thought Experiment. I’ll continue the discussion. 

Toby writes that lawyers fear accountability – for example, in delivering excellent client service – because they fear damage to their reputation:

“lawyers have held themselves above the masses. To maintain their reputation they feel the need to be perceived as “The Best” regardless of the subject. This arrogance may well become their Achilles’ heel. I do not see a clear path to solve this problem for firms, but they really need to find one.”

The solution likely will not stem from law firms as institutions nor lawyers as individuals. Rather, it will come from third party rating systems. It’s already happening:

  • Chambers and Partners objective ratings (as opposed to a pay-to-list model) are gaining traction.
  • The ACC offers a ranking system.
  • International Law Office Client Choice Awards is currently running a survey to identify outstanding lawyer client care.
  • Edge International, a legal strategy consulting firms, now offers the Edge Reputational Index, “a percentage ranking of law firms compared to the firm that ranked the highest in our study.” (According to its August 2011 e-mail Comminque.)
  • In Australia Beaton Benchmarks measures”client perceptions of law firms in Australia. With over 6,000 independent ratings from members of the c-suite, the in-house legal department and line managers, this product changed the way in which Australia’s law firms view the importance of objective and comparative measurement of their performance and brand positions.”

The impact of third-party ratings may, however, take time to cause lawyers to change what they do. Why? Because clients value their cozy outside counsel relationships and so have little motivation to seek objective data. But the market eventually works. Just consider the impact of the first AmLaw 100 ratings in the mid 1980s. Many argue that profit league tables changed BigLaw irrevocably and, 30 year later, we still feel its effects. Could the same happen with reputations?

Third parties intend to be visible because ratings are a business or mission for them. Less visible is that at least some corporate law department clients already rate outside counsel. Whether they share these ratings – and the law firm selection decisions the ratings drive – is unclear. But clients do switch firms and the reasons are not always cost or conflicts.

I do think Toby is right. And I agree with him that law firms should find a way to address the problem. Whether firms try and succeed before a third party establishes itself as a go-to rating service is anyone’s call.