In the July/August 2004 issue of Diversity & the Bar®, the article titled "The Martindale- Hubbell Ratings: An Introduction to the Peer Review Process" by R. Michael Gibeault, explained the Martindale- Hubbell ratings selection process, how the ratings were established, and what they mean. In this month's issue, we examine how the ratings have progressed and how they may be used.
The Martindale-Hubbell peer-review system for attorneys began more than 117 years ago. Now, more than 120,000 attorneys in the U.S. and Canada are reviewed annually for a LexisNexis Martindale- Hubbell rating. In the past decade, the number of rating reviews undertaken has increased from 50,183 in 1993 to 110,456 in 2003. But even with these impressive statistics, there are lingering misconceptions and confusion in the legal community about the ratings and how they can be used. The purpose of this article is to clarify any misconceptions and address the questions commonly posed regarding the ratings.
Martindale-Hubbell Ratings Demystified
"One of the misconceptions is that attorneys have to pay for a rating in the Martindale-Hubbell Directory," says R. Michael Gibeault, vice president of ratings and strategic relations for Martindale-Hubbell. "That's not true," he stated.
There was also an impression some years ago that minority attorneys were not well represented in the ratings. "Race, religion, or gender are not factors in our rating reviews," says Gibeault, who has been with Martindale- Hubbell for six years. "A key determinant is how long the attorney has practiced law. In large cities, the peer review survey is sent 10 years after the lawyer has been admitted to the bar. In smaller cities, it's sent out five years after admission to the bar." Ratings are reviewed every five to eight years thereafter, or earlier if an attorney's ethics or ability is questioned. As a result, it's important for all attorneys to focus on building their reputations and being active in their local bar association.
"It's strictly a peer review process," Gibeault explains. "The reporting sources used are approximately a ratio of 15 percent judges to 85 percent rated and unrated lawyers. Over the years, we've worked with lawyers to determine what amount of time they are willing to put into the review to ensure we have a high response. We've found the lawyer's time is extremely valuable and they are very decisive when determining a rating," says Gibeault. "We have done additional market research and were encouraged by lawyers to continue the process as is. We try to make it as easy as possible," continues Gibeault.
The confidential review form asks the recipient to check a box as to whether the attorney in question has a legal ability of "Very High to Preeminent," "High to Very High," "Good to High," "Does Not Qualify for Legal Ability Rating," or "Legal Ability Unknown." The second question requests a rating of general ethical standards in the categories of "Very High," "Does Not Satisfy Ethical Standards (with explanation)," or "Ethical Standards Unknown."
"The lawyer is viewed as being either ethical or not," Gibeault says. "We only rate attorneys who are judged by their peers to have very high ethical standards for professional conduct." Further explanations are requested if the lawyer's ethical rating is in question.
Since Martindale-Hubbell doesn't attempt to develop ratings for all lawyers, it is not unfavorable for a lawyer to have no rating. Lawyers may also decline to have their rating published, or may not have a rating due to their time in practice, the size of the bar, or other reasons unrelated to their competence or ethical standards. Law firms generally are given the rating of its highest-rated active partner.
The reviews are kept confidential and under no circumstances are they ever released.
Inside the Rating System
Barbara Dooley, senior ratings consultant for Martindale-Hubbell, explains, "Reviews are (computer) generated by the number of years the attorney has been in practice, solely based on the number of years since they were admitted to the bar. They are sorted geographically as well as in the specific area of practice. For example, to rate an intellectual property attorney in New York City, we would send rating sheets to intellectual property attorneys there," she continues.
The 25-member ratings department sometimes uses a professional reference method. "When we can't glean enough information on an individual because of their specific area of practice or geographical location, we ask the lawyer to provide professional references to help with the inquiry," says Dooley, who has been with Martindale- Hubbell for more than 25 years. However, ratings are never determined based solely on references submitted by the reviewed individual. The Martindale-Hubbell field staff may also conduct personal interviews to establish the attorney's credentials, which are confirmed with written inquiries.
How is a lawyer rated? "We send a first-class letter once a lawyer has been reviewed, advising the lawyer of his or her rating," Dooley says. "We put a 30-day hold on publishing the rating if it is less than AV (see sidebar, page 40), so if the attorney wishes, he or she can decline publication of the rating." So from an attorney's perspective there is little risk or downside to being rated, since he or she controls whether the results are publicized.
How long does a rating review take? The process takes about six to eight weeks from the time the review is initiated until they are returned and evaluated. In addition to annual reviews, attorneys can request to be reviewed by contacting Martindale-Hubbell directly.1 Dooley estimates 20 percent of the ratings are referrals by the lawyer, a partner, a marketing director, or a colleague.
State bar authorities provide Martindale-Hubbell with information on a continuous basis. If an attorney is disbarred or suspended, his or her rating is automatically removed. Ratings are transferable within state boundaries. If a lawyer moves to another state, a notation of "T" for transfer will appear next to his or her rating in the Law Directory.
"I personally visit law firm managing partners, marketing partners, and the marketing departments to explain the importance of the ratings," says Dooley. "I provide them with firm rating reports and spreadsheets of the firm's attorneys. I also have the partners provide me with attorney references. I recently met with the president and president-elect of the Hispanic National Bar Association to explain our ratings system to them," Dooley emphasizes.
Who Uses the Ratings and Why?
"My own view is that when I was first admitted to the bar, you always went to the Martindale-Hubbell books," says Richard J. Badolato, of Connell Foley LLP in Roseland, N.J. "As I've become more involved in the ABA, I trade cases (in other geographical areas). Nobody sends cases until they check an attorney's rating," Badolato continues.
Among his numerous professional accomplishments, Badolato is past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association (2002–2003) and is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, where he serves as chair.
"I take it very seriously when I'm asked to rate," says Badolato, who has practiced law for 38 years. "I really rate fair, hard, and honest. It's important to always be objective.
According to Gibeault, it's important to have a peer rating; it shows your professional achievements and maintains credibility. "I've been involved as a trial lawyer so many years that I know a lot of people," says Badolato. "I get three or four inquiries a year with 25 to 30 names. I go over them carefully before I sign the certification. Of course, if I know them personally, I recuse myself.
"Martindale-Hubbell has done a great job keeping up with technology," says Badolato, noting the information is available on the web and on CD-ROM. "But I always go to the books. There's nothing else like looking in the books," he continues.
Rated Lawyers Discuss the Importance of Ratings
"It feels good to reach the pinnacle, and I'm happy to get my rating early in my career," says Jonathan Cole of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, in Nashville, Tenn. Cole has practiced 10 years in areas including commercial litigation, environmental litigation, and products liability litigation. "It's important to participate in the ratings because the bar is so big and it's such a subjective discipline that it's hard to have an objective rating any other way," he continues.
"The ratings are a service to the profession and to the public," Cole says. "Martindale-Hubbell sets the gold standard for rating lawyers," says Cole.
Cole shares the concern of many regarding commercialization of the legal profession. "Our profession is merging too much with business," says Cole. "We have to maintain a high standard and keep the professional side paramount, so we don't become another business. I've always been impressed by Martindale-Hubbell's professionalism."
Grace Speights is a member of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP in Washington D.C. "The rating is important to me because it's one of the highest tributes that you can get," says Speights. "You're rated by the hardest graders, your peers and competitors. It's the highest compliment to get the respect of peers," Speights continues.
Speights has practiced law for 22 years, representing the management side of labor and employment. "I take ratings seriously," she says. "You're marketing that rating to the world. I know clients look at it. It's almost like a reference."
"It's important to participate in the ratings process because your peers are the ones who work with you day-today. I feel it's a performance review," stresses Speights.
Permitted Uses of the Ratings
In today's crowded market, lawyers must look for ways to distinguish themselves for purposes of business development, and a Martindale-Hubbell rating can be a key way to distinguish oneself from the pack.
"The ratings have become a useful resource for lawyers evaluating other lawyers for hiring by general counsel, referrals, or when seeking co-counsel in another jurisdiction," says Gibeault.
Explanation of the Peer Ratings
CV—A definitive statement of a lawyer's above- average ability and unquestionable ethics. This is considered a good first rating.
BV—An indication of a well-established practice, a significant client base, and high professional standing. This is an excellent rating for a lawyer with more experience.
AV—Reflects an attorney who has reached the heights of professional excellence. He or she has usually practiced law for many years and is recognized for the highest levels of skill and integrity. An AV rating is a sign that a lawyer is ranked at the highest level of professional excellence.
In response to significant volumes of requests by lawyers to promote their ratings,2 Martindale-Hubbell created a new ratings icon that is available for download at www.martindale.com/RATINGS. Before downloading, attorneys will be required to accept the terms and conditions of usages, which includes abiding by the ethical rules of the state in which they practice, and following specific guidelines.3
The ratings were conceived as a peer review for use within the legal community, therefore their use must be in compliance with the individual's state bar. Acceptable uses of the ratings include law firm brochures, attorney résumés or curriculum vitae, firm or individual attorney's letterhead, business cards, professional announcements, and listings in other legal directories directed to attorneys. On the internet, the icon may be used on websites, Martindale- Hubbell lawyer homepages, email communications, and internet banner advertisements. Firms are permitted to use the new ratings icon and include the number of rated lawyers in their firms.
The ratings and icon may not be used in advertisements or commercials in the Yellow Pages; newspapers; outdoor billboards, buses and benches; political or campaign promotions; radio and television; and other media aimed at a lay audience.
From a Modest Beginning to Contemporary Applications
Originally published as a two-book edition, the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory has expanded to include a database of more than one million lawyers worldwide, accessible on the company's website, www.Martindale.com, online through LexisNexis at www.Lexis.com, on CD-ROM and in a 26-volume print edition. A consumer edition of the Law Directory is featured on www.lawyers.com. The Martindale-Hubbell database is searched more than four million times each month.
For more than 100 years, Martindale-Hubbell peer-reviewed ratings have provided an evaluation tool for the legal community. With the debut of the Peer Review Rated icon, the company has increased the value of its ratings for attorneys and firms alike.
Kathleen Dreessen is a freelance writer based in Napa, California.
- Inquiries about initiating the ratings process may be addressed to email@example.com.
- July 7, 2004 Martindale-Hubbell letter to executive directors of law firms across the U.S. and Canada.
- For questions regarding use of the ratings system or the rating icon, contact the ratings department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the September/October 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®