Do Chambers and the Legal 500 have a diversity problem?

Do Chambers and the Legal 500 have a diversity problem?

It’s law firm directory season once again. Marketing professionals everywhere are celebrating the rankings of their firms and individual partners in the latest editions of the Chambers and Legal 500 directories. Their excited, self-congratulatory posts on LinkedIn serve to show just how much they matter.

These directories have been part of the legal landscape for over 30 years, becoming mandatory reference tools for law firms, lawyers, clients, students – and journalists. Based upon extensive market research, they identify and recommend the best firms and practitioners in multiple practice areas, subdivided into graduated bands or rankings, each fully supported by independent editorial analysis.

Despite some critics, they are widely regarded as an essential validation of expertise: over four million users visit the Legal 500 website each year, for example. They are well regarded too. Talk to any international lawyer from Sao Paulo to Shanghai, and Chambers and/or the Legal 500 will inevitably punctuate the narrative of their conversation at some point.

Enormous effort is put into submissions by skilled marketing teams across a broad spectrum of firms – from magic circle giants to offshore boutiques. That effort is tangible evidence of how influential the directories are perceived to be: many firms and barristers’ chambers prominently cite rankings on their websites, affirming their importance while marketeers actively use rankings as a promotion tool. In their submissions, law firms vigorously argue the case for individual lawyers and practice areas, supported by a wealth of summary documentation relating to transactional, contentious, regulatory or other work, and an abundance of client references and testimonials.

Bu do clients use them? Talk to general counsel and they will tell you: yes, but sparingly. Few GCs spend their afternoons poring through directory websites, and none will ever admit to choosing a lawyer/firm based solely on their ranking. Instead, they use them intermittently as part of the mix when selecting lawyers across jurisdictions. Most often this is a form of validation: to confirm that the partner/firm pitching to them, or whom their primary law firm is recommending or referring work to in another jurisdiction, is recognised and rated. They also use them as a form of market intelligence to learn more about the latest perceptions of the key players. In short: they trust them.

As for accuracy, Chambers and the Legal 500 do seem to get it right most of the time, even if some lawyers argue otherwise, most especially about who should – or should not – be in the top bands. The brutal truth is that if your firm is not rated by either directory, you are probably not seen as a player, which means that big companies are less likely to use you.

The problem in getting yourself on the ranking ladder is particularly acute for start-ups and spin-offs, while lawyers and marketeers at big law firms can become agitated by high rankings achieved in some practice areas alongside lower ones in others. Partners and practice leaders pay close attention: they want uniform excellence. Of course, if you are a band one firm, or a highly-rated individual practitioner, keeping yourself in pole position presents its own challenges. The toughest part of being at the top is staying there.

Such is the received wisdom concerning the Legal 500 and Chambers. But with one LinkedIn post, Chris Arnold has hit the big time in media attention over his own directory ranking. As a partner in the Derivatives & Structured Products practice of Mayer Brown’s London office, Arnold has achieved a Band 3 Chambers ranking in 2020 for Capital Markets: Structured Finance & Derivatives in the UK. But after it was published, he wrote an open letter ‘to be distributed on social media’ to the Chambers’ editor-in-chief, Rieta Ghosh, asking for his ranking to be removed.

His letter explained why: ‘I was disappointed to discover that only one of the brilliant and inspirational women derivatives lawyers in the City was included as a Ranked Lawyer (alongside 17 men) in the Chambers 2020 UK rankings published last week. This is completely unrepresentative of the extraordinary female talent in this sector.’ He highlighted similar gender disparities in securitisation and debt capital markets.

The letter continued: ‘One of the root causes of inequality in the legal sector is a lack of diverse role models. Third party recognition is a critical element impacting a lawyer’s perceived success. Chambers is failing to support role models by not recognising more female and diverse lawyers in its rankings. I request that you remove my name from your list of Ranked Lawyers in the above publications. I shall not be submitting myself for consideration for future Chambers publications until women lawyers comprise at least 25% of the individual rankings.’

Predictably, the response was overwhelming. On LinkedIn, it became the highest read UK post of the week and the story was covered extensively by the legal press. Was Arnold himself surprised?  ‘I have been overwhelmed by the level of support for the issues raised in my posts, which have now been viewed by over 200,000 people and shared countless times,’ he tells me.

Arnold explains that the field he specialises in is quite small. ‘I was hoping that fellow practitioners and clients would help highlight that the talent in our sector was more gender diverse than the directory rankings suggested, and that there are ways in which law firms could work with directories to help to redress that,’ he says. ‘However, the issue has clearly resonated across the entire profession globally and I believe there is now positive momentum to address it in the broader context of the diversity and inclusion initiatives that the industry had been implementing in recent years.’

So does he believe that anything will change as a result? The tone of his response is notably more emollient and nuanced than the original letter from which he appears to have rowed back.

‘There has already been a lot of work going on at the directories and across the legal media to better reflect the diverse talent across the profession,’ he says. ‘Some of this has been highlighted in the responses to my posts. I welcome Chambers’ willingness to engage on these issues and my senior partner Sally Davies and I will be meeting their CEO and editor-in-chief to share ideas. There must be collaboration between law firms and directories and I firmly believe that we all have a common interest in promoting diversity and inclusion in the profession and championing the positive role models that are so desperately needed.’

From my own experience of working with both Chambers and the Legal 500, I have found their methodology to be exhaustive and scrupulously fair. Both are edited by very experienced women (Georgina Stanley edits the Legal 500 UK), who are recognised champions of diversity and who know the UK legal sector very well indeed.  

It will therefore be interesting to see if the Chambers (and the Legal 500) rankings for 2021 are manifestly different from 2020 in their gender composition. If they are – either as a result of Arnold’s lobbying efforts or because of other factors – the differences will be keenly monitored by journalists and lawyers alike.

Last year, I pointed out to Helen Davies QC, co-head of Brick Court Chambers, that of the 33 silks ranked by the Legal 500 for commercial litigation, she was the only woman in the top two bands. She had no idea and expressed surprise. ‘It’s a huge generality,’ she told me. ‘But men are often over-confident.’

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.

Author: Dominic Carman