Do you know how you rate?

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Published on 7/30/07

It's estimated by the American Bar Foundation that there are more than one million practicing lawyers in this country.

Differentiating yourself in that kind of crowded market is a major challenge, and a number of organizations increasingly try to help lawyers do that by means of various "peer rankings" that purport to evaluate a lawyer's skill and ethics.

Some have been around for years, more have sprung up just recently - and all are increasingly controversial.

Martindale-Hubbell has long provided a two-letter code ranking of lawyers based on a peer review process, with the "AV" designation denoting a lawyer of superior skill and ethics.

However, in 2003 the Chambers publications came from the United Kingdom to this country, and in the space of a few short years they have created a booming business by giving a detailed qualitative evaluation of over 11,000 by unnamed peers and clients. Press reports indicate that Martindale will respond later this year by unveiling online client reviews and rankings of lawyers and firms.

Both Martindale and Chambers pale in comparison to the spread of the Super Lawyers publications, which represent themselves as providing peer review "Super Lawyer" ratings in 48 states. Super Lawyers, like Martindale and Chambers, presents paid profiles of some of the lawyers who receive this rating.

The publication received considerable attention in 2006, when the New Jersey State Bar Committee on Attorney Advertising issued its Opinion 39, prohibiting attorneys from participating in the annual Super Lawyers survey.

The state Supreme Court later put this prohibition on hold upon petition by Super Lawyers, and the matter is now under review.

The bar committee's reasoning (which could impact other publications such as the annual peer review compilation of The Best Lawyers in America) was that the "Super Lawyer" designation has "the potential to lead an unwary consumer to believe that the lawyers so described are, by virtue of this manufactured title, superior to their colleagues who practice in the same areas of law."

At mid-year a new controversy has arisen over a web site,, which says it will give a numerical 1-10 rating of every lawyer in the country on their experience and industry recognition, supposedly by evaluating public records (including state bar disciplinary actions) and legal literature. Avvo (which is short for "avvocato," or lawyer, in Italian) is headed by the previous general counsel at and says it uses a "proprietary mathematical model" to develop its rankings.

Avvo has already drawn fire in numerous press reports for giving lower rankings to Supreme Court justices than to some disbarred attorneys, and at least one prominent lawyer has threatened to sue the site over its ranking of him.

All of this is hardly academic or mere marketing fluff. All lawyers should do an Internet search on themselves (something along the line of "my name + rating") to see what publications might be purporting to rank their ability. If you uncover a problem, the reputation you save may be your own.

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