In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Phillip Greer, CEO of Best Lawyers, to discuss how lawyers can use peer review rankings to grow their client base and stay on top of industry trends.
Phillip Greer has driven the continual evolution of Best Lawyers since joining in 2005. By tapping into his training as an engineer, Phil created the company’s first content management system to take the organization and its products from analog to digital. Phil has helmed the company since 2011 and was named CEO in 2018. Through the years, he has led international expansion strategies and ensured lawyers around the world receive the recognition they deserve through the various Best Lawyers offerings. Phil and his team have built a multimillion-dollar company with clients ranging from AmLaw 200 firms to sole practitioners. Best Lawyers was the first to embrace the transition to digital platforms, much to the acclaim of the audience and readership. His proudest achievement is in the consistency of the products and the inscrutable Best Lawyers peer review methodology.
Welcome, Phil. I’m so glad we got to meet in person down in Savannah, Georgia earlier this year.
Yes, that was a fantastic happenstance. I didn’t plan to be on a podcast a few weeks later, but you never know what the world is going to throw you. You go to see a friend, say hello, and he’s like, “Hey, have you met Gina?” And here we are.
Gina Rubel: Patrick Fuller has been on the podcast as well, and he is a good friend. I think his exact words were, “Gina, you have to meet Phil Greer. Have you met?” And I said something to the effect of, “I’ve gotten many emails from him over the years.”
Phillip Greer: Anyone listening to this has seen my name multiple times. Yes, I exist. I’m a real person, and it’s a pleasure meeting you all.
Gina Rubel: That’s the fun of this podcast. It’s about going on record with people in our industry and talking about many of the tools, tactics, and opportunities that lawyers have to better position themselves in the marketplace.
What is Best Lawyers and how is it different from Best Law Firms?
Best Lawyers is a peer review ranking of lawyers around the world. It is based on individual lawyers. Originally, it was founded in 1981, and we’ve been going over 40 years now. Who knows who the best lawyers are? Well, lawyers do. The founders started this peer review methodology and started producing these publications. Then I joined, and we looked at some opportunities of scale. We’ve been ranking and recognizing lawyers in the industry for such a long time. There are also law firms that make up the whole of practice areas and what clients ultimately need. We decided, what if we were to do a law firm ranking? That’s when Best Law Firms came in.
Best Lawyers is fully peer review ranked; lawyers vote on lawyers. Best Law Firms takes it a little bit further. We get information from marketing departments and clients, and there are some law firm leader surveys. There are a few more pieces that come together to make up the whole of a law firm. We decided to do that on a tier-based system. With Best Lawyers, you’re either in it or you’re not. With Best Law Firms, you could be in tier one, two, or three based on your practice area. Your law firm could be a tier-one family law firm for Atlanta, Georgia, for example.
Do you have to have attorneys in Best Lawyers to be considered for Best Law Firms?
Yes. The nomination process for Best Law Firms starts with Best Lawyers. If you have Best Lawyers at your firm, you are obviously doing something right because it’s hard to make the Best Lawyers list. We only rank around the top five to six percent of practicing attorneys around the world for Best Lawyers. It’s also based only in the US right now. If you have a lawyer that is doing family law work in Atlanta, Georgia, your firm is eligible for a Best Law Firms nomination. We’ll reach out to you. You don’t even have to reach out to us. We’ll say, “Hey, you’re eligible now for Best Law Firms. Here are the processes you would have to go through. We need to do a law firm survey, we’re going to do a law firm leader survey, and you do a client survey, et cetera. Then we’ll put you up for nomination in that process.”
Gina Rubel: You have lawyers who become Best Lawyers. Then you’ll reach out to the law firm, and you go through another process to vet them for Best Law Firms?
Phillip Greer: Yes. When we go through the nomination process to figure out what law firms are eligible for Best Law Firms, it’s about six months after we announce the Best Lawyers list. If a family law firm in Atlanta, Georgia is included in Best Lawyers in August, we’ll reach out in December and say, “You’re now eligible for Best Law Firms. We’ll send you a submission packet coming in the next year.” In the first quarter of the following year, you will get your submission packet where you can tell us about your law firm. At the same time, we do this with our Best Lawyers peer review process.
We try to couple them to make it easy. The survey for lawyers is separate from the survey and submission packet for Best Law Firms. However, we do them around similar times so law firms only have to hear about our research process once. We know how much work it is to fill out all these different types of accolades. That’s one of the big core tenets that I have set forth with our team – we need to make this as efficient as possible. We don’t want to take up too much time; we want to gather as much data as needed, and then get out. We use technology to make that happen.
Are there different benefits to being listed in Best Lawyers for consumer law firms versus corporate law firms?
Since the beginning, we’ve tried to understand the clients of the Best Lawyers network. When it comes to Best Lawyers, whether you’re looking for a lawyer on the consumer side, or you’re looking for a lawyer on the business or corporate side, we make sure that we’re bifurcating the content and the ability to access the network appropriately. For that consumer readership, we may have distributions of our lists and local publications that they would access; we’ll do a partnership to put our list out with them. We try to meet the consumers where they are.
For the corporate side, we put together more business-focused editions that reach general counsel and C-Suite readers. We don’t want the lawyers to worry about how we’re getting the content out to the consumer. We take that burden on. That’s important to us. We understand the consumers of legal services, and we try to make sure we’re covering that. Best Lawyers covers solo practitioners all the way to the top AmLaw 200 law firms.
What is your affiliation with US News and World Report?
In 2008-2009 when we started talking about doing this Best Law Firms project, we wanted to go out there with a media partner who had a big reach in the industry, and US News was the obvious choice. We talked to each other and said, “Hey, is this a good fit? We’ll do all the work, we’ll do all the research, we’ll put it together, we’ll do the development, and we’ll actually launch and maintain the content.” For both sides, it was an obvious yes. Since the beginning, we’ve been doing all the work internally for Best Lawyers and for Best Law Firms, and we’re partnering with US News every year to put Best Law Firms out with the US News’ name on it.
Gina Rubel: It’s a distribution channel.
Phillip Greer: Yes. It is a joint brand, as well. The core focus of the research, of the methodology, of the relationships, is all internal to Best Lawyers.
Several top law schools have halted participation with US News and World Report. How is that affecting Best Lawyers and Best Law Firms?
Because we handle everything for Best Law Firms, I think that’s a unique situation. I can’t speak too much on US News or other verticals, because we’re actually not integrated to that level. We don’t have any correspondence with their law school rankings or their college rankings. We are independent of that. I know what I’ve read, but I can’t comment on it.
Gina Rubel: It’s a separate relationship, and each vertical is different. As a public relations and marketing practitioner, we get these questions all the time from our clients, and one of the benefits of this podcast is to not only help us answer them in your voice, but to give them that tool to listen to, as well.
When you became CEO, what was your initial priority?
The biggest thing was forming a leadership team at first, because I got the pleasure of doing a lot of my initial work with the founders of the company. We built a lot of cool things based on their talent, their expertise in the industry, and their relationships. When they left, it was clear I needed a strong leadership team to help me evaluate the landscape, most of whom I hired myself. The head of our research, Elizabeth Petit, was folded in to start the leadership team. I had the honor of hiring all the other members. That was the big first goal: let me get a team together I trust, that can grow, and let’s see what the future is for Best Lawyers.
From there, I evaluated what we wanted to accomplish. You never want to build things just to build them. I find the best way to find out if something’s worth doing is to ask the people who are going to use the final product. We surveyed lawyers to find out what they want out of research, out of our peer review process, and out of our Best Law Firms recognitions. We kept hearing things like, “DEI is important, and we want to make sure the up-and-coming lawyers and senior associates have some type of path to show that they’re doing great work.”
Also, they wanted us to improve the process for filling out surveys. We took all that feedback in, and we created a five-year plan to establish a solid infrastructure for getting our peer review process and our Best Law Firms survey process in a clean easy state. That was goal one as a leadership team. For goal two, we wanted to make sure that we’re identifying all the relevant practice areas and industries for these lawyers. We reviewed specialties and subspecialties, and we put that together to start creating new nominations and growth strategies.
For goal three, we identified strategies to cultivate younger lawyers who are coming up. We internally created what we call Ones to Watch, and it’s those lawyers who have been practicing for a while, have gotten recognition in the law firm and a few of their peers, and are on the way to the top. In partnership with law firms to figure out who these nominees are, we started our Ones to Watch a few years ago. It’s been wildly successful. DEI is a big part of our content focus, and we make sure that we are affecting it through nomination processes for the materials we’re writing, whether they are internal materials or materials we’re working on with our media partners. The cool thing about a peer review process is that lawyers get to use our network and our nomination tools to impact the direction of who makes the next list.
How often do you have to add new practice areas?
Well, it depends. How often do new things happen in the industry? How far do you want to take this? Ten years ago, everyone was saying, “Hey, there’s this FinTech thing.” During the last five years, it’s been focused on blockchain, cryptocurrency, and cannabis law. It comes down to what happens in the industry. That’s one of the unique things about law. If you’re listening to something on the radio, if it’s in the news, if it’s in a lifestyle magazine, if it’s an interesting topic, there’s a lawyer behind it. That’s one of the things I tell my children all the time. I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. They know what I do, and they know it’s important, but they don’t know how to relate to it. A lot of times when they’re flipping through something or reading through something online, I’ll say, “I can guarantee there’s a lawyer behind that. Let’s look into it.”
It just depends on the industry change and shift. What’s the new technology? We also must think about when we let some practice areas go. When does the focus on the railroad industry not have as much importance anymore? We still have railroad law, but there are fewer lawyers who are focusing on railroad law. It’s a conversation we have every year, and it’s a decision that we don’t make. It’s based on the industry itself.
Gina Rubel: I figured as much. Cannabis is such a huge practice area now, but 10 years ago, it didn’t exist. I find it fascinating.
What trends are you seeing in the industry, and how do they impact your business and your audience?
We start the nomination and balloting process at the beginning of each year. We start by seeing the immediate trends as you’d expect – where lawyers are going, whether they’re changing to new practice areas, and what they’re focusing on. Maybe they are being laterally hired to another law firm, or we see new boutique firms that are being created. A lot of these are more obvious trends. I think marketing directors are seeing niche practice area boutique firms becoming important to law, as those lawyers and firms like to have a specific focus on a given area.
I think the biggest trends we see are what’s happening in the industry. We focus on the practice that lawyers are devoting their time to, and where it is going. If you see it on the news, it’s what’s important. Those are the biggest trends we see – the change in focus in lawyers and where their priorities are.
Gina Rubel: I can only imagine looking back over the last three or so years how much change you have seen.
Phillip Greer: Yes, I’ll give you an example. I was speaking to a lawyer this last year, and he was big in NFTs. He’s at a huge major law firm, and he’s in a new division that’s asking, “How does NFT fit into our law firm? Does it fit into a mix of FinTech with cybersecurity, with the accounting and financial sector?” He convinced me. He was an amazing salesperson. I came back to my research team, and I said, “We need to know about Web3 and NFTs.” That’s just in the last six months, and there’s always something lawyers get excited about, and they can excite me about, or they can excite our research team about. It’s a constant catalyst for evaluating what we can do. You can’t do everything because you also have to go out and do the research, and you must figure out how much effort and time you want to spend on any one of those projects.
How big is your team?
We’ve got a little over 50 employees total for the company. We originally were spread out in three locations: we had a New York office, a Florida office, and an Augusta, Georgia office. Now, post-pandemic, most of the employees are remote. The largest gathering is here in the Augusta area.
How do law firms use Best Lawyers research and accolades?
Accolades are extremely important for law firms to help establish a reputation in the industry and to grow their client base. On the launch day, we hope it’s a big party. We hope everyone at the law firms are popping their champagne bottles. We know this happens. I’ll get emails from law firms that say, “We’re staying up until 12:01, and we can’t wait to pop the champagne and talk about our new law firm rankings as a group.” That’s one of the lovely things to hear.
Besides the awards element and the achievement of receiving that, lawyers and law firms use it as a tool for impact. They get to use our nomination process to give us feedback, to tell us, “Hey, this is what’s happening. This is what our peers are doing. These are the things you should be paying attention to.” Being able to use our methodology as a tool for impact is huge for law firms.
We’re constantly reaching out to lawyers and law firms to figure out how we can better our products. They’re very interested in the ethical nature of the practice of law. They’re always studying their peers. They want to know what they’re doing. They want to know they’re putting in the hard work to do the best and be the best, and they want to make sure those who are recognized are at that same level. That tool for impact is extremely important.
Lastly, I would say it’s an awesome network to be a part of. When you get to say you’re in a group of the top five or six percent of lawyers around the world, that’s significant. You can look at that list, and you can rely on it to make a referral. You can talk about the value of what it means to be included in Best Lawyers if you’re giving advice for junior associates and their career paths and goals, and how to figure out what specialties they may want to consider. Most people enter law with no idea what they’re going to do. It is important to figure out how to specialize and to find a mentor that guides a path, and I think that’s all inherent in the process of becoming a Best Lawyer.
There are a lot of professional awards in the industry. What sets Best Lawyers apart?
First and foremost, it’s our peer review methodology. That’s the only way you can become listed or ranked in Best Lawyers. There are no gray, hidden areas. I hear about that all the time when we talk to lawyers in law firms. We ask them, “What stands out for Best Lawyers?” They say every time that the key differentiator is our peer review process. We maintain a brand, we have a trusted methodology, and we’re transparent.
If you don’t make the list, you can call us. We won’t tell you what lawyers say, because that would be unethical on our end. We’ll let them know that they’re just not getting the marks. Those are hard conversations to have. We think it’s important to talk to lawyers and law firms about why it’s not happening. You’re not getting the marks, or people don’t know who you are. If you are saying you specialize in this, we have the top people who are practicing and specializing in that field and in your region, and they’re not saying anything about you. Maybe change your specialty or tactic, figure out something else, or hire a PR firm. They’re there to help.
Gina Rubel: If people don’t know who a lawyer is, they’re not going to get in Best Lawyers.
Phillip Greer: A hundred percent. You don’t have to be a showboat. There are many people in professional circles who say, “Oh my goodness, this person’s a hidden gem.” Even people without large egos are doing wonderful work, and they’re leaving a wake in their path of positivity that makes a difference. It resounds in an industry. People say, “These awards, they’re just ego shows.” Of course, there’s ego in awards. We’re born competitive people. However, we all know a hidden gem. Whether they’re in the tax world, whether they’re in the legal profession, or whether they’re a computer specialist, we all know a hidden gem who is not showboating but is doing wonderful work, and that’s what makes a Best Lawyer.
We stand apart because of our peer review methodology. We know that lawyers use our network for referrals. Whether they are referring their clients to another matter because it’s outside of their jurisdiction or there’s a conflict of interest, they can trust in our network. Let’s say you’re in New York City, and you have a client that needs someone in Alabama, you can go onto our website, roll through our directory, and find a lawyer that’s exactly what you need. You can do that with confidence, knowing there’s a peer review process behind it.
Does Best Lawyers have a presence outside of the US?
Yes, we do. I joined this company in 2005. When I joined, there was just a presence in the US. My background is as a software engineer. My goal was to digitize our process, which involved phone calls, fax machines, and mail-in balance, for online needs. I built all the systems, and within a year, I had our first system built, ready to go for lawyers and marketing directors to access. The founder of the company came to me and said, “Hey, I want to expand internationally.” I said, “Well, what’s the goal?” He’s like, “Let’s go to Canada.”
I built all the systems to go to Canada, and he came back and said, “That was successful. I want to go further.” I said, “How many countries?” He said, “all of them.” I said, “Okay, all right. We need a real global presence.” He said, “Absolutely.” At the time, there wasn’t any publication or media organization doing that. Yes, there were lawyers who were practicing globally. There are law firms that have had offices all over the world for a long time. However, there wasn’t a single source of peer-reviewed data on lawyers in countries around the world. We have lists in over 75 countries, and we continue to grow them and make sure that we are accounting for the top legal talent in each of those countries.
Do you have any parting thoughts for our listeners?
I would simply say that we know data-driven decision-making is the way of the future. That’s the core of what Best Lawyers does. When you’re going to find a lawyer or law firm, you’re going to your board of directors and saying, “We need to hire this person or this team.” What type of research are you bringing to the table? What kind of diligence have you done? Are you using peer-reviewed data, or are you taking client testimony? We all know that client testimony is going to be more about customer service or sometimes the settlement amount that was received. Consider the trust of a brand like Best Lawyers and the value we bring. The fact that the industry cares so much about the recognition of Best Lawyers and our process should be important to everyone’s decision-making when choosing counsel.
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