Most members of the legal profession are familiar with the expression that a lawyer has a Martindale- Hubbell Rating; few, however, have a clear idea of what that means, how it is determined or how one can use that information.
This is the first in a three-part series of articles that is designed to explain the Martindale-Hubbell Ratings process. This article will address the issue of how ratings can be used by lawyers, law firms, and corporate counsel in the selection process. In future articles, we will also offer some insight into the flexibility of how the permitted uses of ratings help differentiate the firm and its lawyers. The goal of the series is to educate members of the legal community about this ubiquitous lawyer evaluation tool.
What Are Lawyer Ratings?
For more than 135 years, attorneys have relied on the LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory to provide them with authoritative information on the worldwide legal profession. The ratings first appeared in the 1887-1888 biannual edition of the Martindale American Law Directory, introducing an integral part of the company's service to the legal community in general and members of the bar in particular.
Martindale-Hubbell's exclusive Lawyer Rating System evaluates attorneys and law firms in the U.S. and Canada with its independent peer review process. Ratings, which were created as an objective tool that would attest to a lawyer's ability and professional ethics, reflect the confidential opinions of members of the bar and judiciary. They have always appeared in the Law Directory's print and CD-ROM editions, and are now also displayed in attorney and law firm listings that are searchable on martindale.com and the LexisNexis service, the most widely used online search tool.
"The Martindale-Hubbell rating system is a valuable tool for identifying excellent lawyers of high ethical standards, and has long been my primary source for referral of matters to first-class lawyers," said William Reece Smith, Jr., partner at Carlton Fields. "Martindale-Hubbell has guided me unerringly for 50 years in choosing attorneys, and I know of no better general reference for locating and selecting lawyers."
How Are Ratings Established?
One of the biggest misconceptions about Martindale- Hubbell Ratings has to do with the process used to determine a lawyer's rating. It's important to emphasize that ratings are established by attorneys and their peers. While Martindale-Hubbell acts as a facilitator and assumes the processing cost associated with determining lawyer ratings, the company itself does not evaluate attorneys. Rather, Martindale-Hubbell simply reflects the confidential opinions expressed by sources within the legal profession according to an objective peer review process.
To determine a rating, Martindale-Hubbell requests confidential opinions from other lawyers and from judges, including those who are rated and those who are not, and sent randomly within a geographic location. The Ratings team begins the process by asking an attorney's peers to complete written questionnaires evaluating the lawyer under review. Martindale-Hubbell staff also participates in the review process by conducting personal interviews with members of the bar who may be able to shed some light on the credentials of a specific attorney. Information obtained during the interviews is then combined with the geographic surveys.
Opinions are solicited from peers with direct, professional knowledge of the lawyers under review. All of the review materials are strictly confidential, enabling participants to provide completely candid assessments of their colleagues. On average, Martindale-Hubbell contacts hundreds of thousands of attorneys each year to establish or confirm ratings. To ensure impartiality, no single law firm can submit more than two evaluations for a particular lawyer. The number of attorneys rated annually varies depending on how many meet the high standards in a given year.
The confidentiality, objectivity, and complete independence of the ratings process is what has made it a unique and credible evaluation tool for members of the legal profession. The legal community values the accuracy of attorney ratings because they are determined by their peers—the people who are best suited to assess the legal ability and professional ethics of their colleagues.
"As a sole practitioner in criminal defense, an AV rating has special meaning for me," said Jeralyn Merritt, an attorney in Denver. "It allows lawyers around the country—and potential clients who are savvy enough to do their own research—to have confidence in my expertise and integrity before they even pick up the phone to call me."
What Do They Mean?
Ratings fall into two categories: Legal Ability and General Ethical Standards.
Legal Ability Ratings take into consideration the standard of ability for the area in which the lawyer practices, the attorney's expertise, the nature of the attorney's practice, and other professional qualifications. The Legal Ability Ratings are:
- C – Good to High
- B– High to Very High
- A – Very High to Pre-eminent
All of these ratings should be considered above average.
For practical purposes, the Legal Ability Rating can be influenced by the amount of time an attorney has been practicing and becomes better known to peers. An "AV" rating for an attorney with relatively few years of practice is a sign of exceptional ability.
General Ethical Standards
The General Ethical Standards Rating denotes a very high adherence to the principles of conduct and ethics mandated by the legal profession, as well as to its standards of reliability and diligence. There is only one acceptable rating for General Ethical Standards: V – Very High.
An attorney does not qualify for receiving a Legal Ability Rating unless he or she has been endorsed by his or her peers for a V Rating in General Ethical Standards. Only when the attorney has met the peer review evaluation of their ethical standards do they move on to the assessment of their legal ability.
To maintain a high level of accuracy, Martindale-Hubbell conducts regular re-examinations of existing ratings. An attorney's rating may improve over time, reflecting his or her career development. At the same time, ratings can be reduced or removed if the results upon re-examination are not consistent with previous rating reviews.
Martindale-Hubbell Ratings: An Evaluation Tool
A Martindale-Hubbell Rating is one of the criteria that lawyers and clients use to evaluate an attorney when retaining a lawyer, or simply researching the background of co-counsel or opposing counsel.
When referring matters to colleagues with specific expertise or looking for counsel in another jurisdiction, lawyers want to have confidence in the individual attorney under consideration. By reviewing the ratings, they can be guided to an attorney with very high ethics as well as the appropriate level of professional experience.
"In my current role, as well as in past in-house experiences, I have frequently found myself with a need to find outside counsel in myriad different jurisdictions to represent our business," said N. Cornell Boggs, III, vice president and general counsel for Tyco Plastics & Adhesives. "The Martindale-Hubbell Rating system has served as a steady and reliable data point in our evaluation process for counsel selection."
A potential client of a referring attorney usually considers the rating along with other indicators of a lawyer's background, such as areas of practice, bar memberships, professional affiliations, articles authored, law school, and clients (all of which can be obtained by viewing the attorney's biographical profile on www.martindale.com). A Martindale-Hubbell Rating completes this professional profile, giving additional objective insight into who might be the right choice for the matter at hand.
Since ratings are determined based on the "peer review" opinions of the legal community, the continued participation of lawyers and judges is vital to ensure the success of this important independent evaluation tool. Attorneys who receive rating inquiries from Martindale-Hubbell are encouraged to complete and return them as soon as possible. By participating in the ratings process, members of the bar help to provide a valuable service to their colleagues in the legal profession.
In part two of this three-part series, we will take a look at the permitted uses of Martindale-Hubbell Ratings, including an in-depth discussion of how such uses have evolved over the years to keep in step with changes in how members of the legal profession evaluate and select lawyers.
R. Michael Gibeault is vice president of ratings and strategic relations for LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell, the leading client development company for the legal profession and the exclusive publisher of the Martindale- Hubbell Ratings. Martindale-Hubbell has been a proud sponsor and strategic partner of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association since 1999. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.martindale.com.
From the July/August 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®