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Ranking organizations should consider board certification as a factor when rating lawyers in practice areas

Special to the News Columns
Steven B. Lesser

Steven B. Lesser

For decades, established organizations such as Chambers and Partners, Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers, Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo, and others have ranked lawyers in specialty areas after performing research, soliciting peer review, interviewing with potential lawyer candidates and in some instances speaking to their clients. At the same time, other organizations provide lawyer rankings but not necessarily based on credentials but in exchange for payment. With lawyer ranking organizations participating in social media and elsewhere, all this can be confusing to the public. Consumers of legal services need to have a reliable and meaningful evaluation of a lawyer before retaining them. So, what do consumers of legal services want to know from organizations that rank lawyers?

The consumer seeks to know if the lawyer is competent in a practice area, has a reputation for professionalism, and has the experience to handle a particular matter. If the foregoing considerations serve as drivers, then board certification by state bars and ABA accredited programs should be recognized as a factor when any organization ranks and publishes these lawyer rankings. This is because state bars and organizations with ABA accredited lawyer certification programs have already performed due diligence by determining that a lawyer is substantially involved in a practice area (generally at least 40% of the time), has passed a written examination, been vetted by confidential peer review by colleagues in their geographic area of practice and have taken continuing legal education to stay current with trends in their respective practice areas. This undertaking is significant, is conducted by bar staff, and board-certified volunteers to administer these requirements. Moreover, there are enforcement mechanisms to ensure due process and established procedures to revoke or suspend board certification status. The larger state bar programs expend thousands of hours each year to administer board certification programs. Florida and Texas have the largest certification programs in the nation with 27 certification areas, followed by North Carolina with 14 and California with 11. Other states including New Jersey, Ohio, and Louisiana have several certification areas. The American Bar Association has a special standing committee which administers the accreditation process for lawyer certification programs offered by eight national organizations. These organizations have a corporate infrastructure, must demonstrate fiscal stability, and the ability to administer specialty board certification examinations. Moreover, these organizations conduct peer review and consider professionalism as a main ingredient, all in compliance with the ABA standards for accreditation of specialty certification programs for lawyers.

These are objective standards imposed by state bars and the organizations with ABA accredited lawyer certification programs. With all the diligent efforts by these entities to ensure impartial review and adherence to these lawyer certification standards through certification and recertification, generally every five years, it makes sense that credible organizations that rank lawyers should consider board certification of a lawyer as an objective standard when considering if that lawyer should be ranked. By doing so, consumers of legal services can be more confident in the selection process of lawyer ranking organizations when certification is a factor. Likewise, counsel seeking to refer a matter in a specialty area to another lawyer, may also gain confidence that rankings by national organizations are dependable when relying upon them to initiate a referral.

Considering board certification as an element in ranking lawyers, enhances our profession. By doing so, the ranking organization gains greater credibility when publishing these rankings to the public. Independent research conducted by the ranking organization can confirm whether a board-certified lawyer should be recognized for excellence and confirm their reputation for professionalism, but there are more benefits that can be gained by this approach. Board certified lawyers that recognize the value of being ranked by these organizations, will initiate their own efforts to publicize those rankings when marketing legal services. These efforts will enhance the reputation of the ranking organization. In addition, lawyers that consider becoming board certified may be more inclined to do so to acquire that designation. Finally, the prestige of board certification and becoming ranked would be valuable to the lawyer’s law firm and therefore, the firm may be inclined to support lawyers to become board certified. More board-certified lawyers is good for the profession because it promotes greater competency and professionalism in the practice of law. Most importantly, the public receives credible knowledge as to the qualifications of a lawyer when considering the rankings.

Considering board certification as a factor in ranking lawyers by national ranking organizations is a positive development and makes sense. It is good for the lawyer, valuable for the ranking organization, and best for the consumer that is provided with objective, reliable information as to whether the lawyer is competent, proficient, respected by his or her peers, and can handle a legal matter for the consumer.

Steven B. Lesser of Ft. Lauderdale chairs of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Specialization.

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