Called a valuable resource by some and an outright scam by others, Super Lawyers magazine has triggered a heated debate over its credibility that is forcing lawyers to take sides, creating confusion for clients trying to find the right attorney for them.
Pittsburgh is at the forefront of the debate, as big-name law firms like Edgar Snyder & Associates and Berger and Green flaunt Super Lawyers honors on their websites and commercials, while local branches of Reed Smith and K&L Gates subtly compete for the same accolades.
"The biggest problem is that, over the last decade, there's been such a proliferation of ratings and entities that it's now very difficult to separate the good from the bad; the ones that are given a little more credence or credibility versus some of the others that have popped up as beauty contests," said Micah Buchdahl, an American Bar Association chairman.
Mr. Buchdahl, who is also a faculty member of the Pennsylvania Bar Institute, created the ABA's national law marketing conference to help teach lawyers the ethics of publicity decisions, such as whether to compete for a listing in Super Lawyers, a magazine with state and local editions that claims to list the most outstanding lawyers in more than 70 practice areas.
"They play to the lawyer's ego and they're nice to talk about," Mr. Buchdahl said, "but in most cases, the direct tie between these accolades and the lawyers are pretty finite."
Cindy Larson, who directs research and editorial production for Super Lawyers, says that critics of her publication are misinformed.
"I would tell them is to look at our selection process. We're really quite transparent in telling individuals about what we do," she said. "We don't share information about specific lawyer selections, but we do what we say we do: We roll up our sleeves to find lawyers and we're a good place to search for whatever your needs are."
Super Lawyers selects its honorees by sending annual ballots to lawyers in a given state, who then nominate and rate their colleagues in 12 categories such as "experience" and "position with law firm." A complete list of the categories is available on the magazine's website.
Officials then evaluate the ratings of those with enough nominations. Some review categories are given more weight than others, but the magazine doesn't disclose which ones.
The third step places those with the highest scores on a panel, which then rates other lawyers on a scale of one to 10.
The highest-rated lawyers are vetted by an "Internet search," as the magazine's website explains without elaboration, before being named to the Super Lawyers list.
Unlike other ratings services, such as Martindale, Super Lawyers does not solicit clients or require a judge's recommendation, nor does it weigh fact-based performance data or issue written tests.
"If you look at a list, it's a mix of the best lawyers in the practice and lawyers who have no business being there," Mr. Buchdahl said. "The consumer doesn't know the difference between the person who's top-drawer and the person who's politicized himself into that award.
"If you're not ranked as a top lawyer in your profession, it's only because you didn't try."
Ms. Larson said her magazine isn't the popularity contest that some perceive it to be, because it caps the number of votes one can receive from his or her own law firm. It also enlists a group of attorneys to perform independent research on candidates.
"It's really designed to have as many checks and balances and gather as much information as possible," she said.
In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court said lawyers cannot advertise in the Super Lawyers magazine or publicize themselves as honorees in any capacity.
"Such titles or descriptions ... lack both court approval and objective verification of the lawyer's ability," the court's Committee on Attorney Advertising wrote about Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers, a similar publication. "These self-aggrandizing titles have 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."
But when Federal Trade Commission lawyers argued against the new policy, the court reversed its stance just months later, allowing for the marketing use of a Super Lawyers honor so long as the selection process is explained and all advertisements include a written disclaimer.
"While deceptive advertising by lawyers should be prohibited, courts and other state policymakers should be careful not to restrict unnecessarily the dissemination of truthful and non-misleading advertising that may help consumers make more informed choices," the FTC argument says, citing lawyers' First Amendment rights.
The court decision is not binding in Pennsylvania, but it shows that FTC lawyers will get involved if a state tries to hinder advertising beyond reason.
Super Lawyers makes its money through print advertisements and by offering honorees increased space in its listings, based on how much they're willing to pay.
Online, honorees can buy an "expanded profile" for $600 per year. If they don't, an honoree's online profile will not include a picture, phone number or website, among other information.
The magazine decides which lawyers to list before receiving orders for ads, Ms. Larson said.
One honoree who has bought an expanded profile is Gary Lang, a personal injury lawyer at Pittsburgh's Feldstein Grinberg Stein & McKee, P.C. An active member of Pittsburgh's legal community, Mr. Lang has been named to the list every year since 2005.
"For clients, its helpful for them to know that their lawyer has been selected a Super Lawyer. It means he's been practicing for a good period of time and has a good reputation in the field," he said.
The magazine's website provides testimonials from lawyers about the new clients they received as a result of their profiles.
Mr. Lang said he's honored to be recognized by his colleagues so many times, despite criticisms of the magazine.
"Is it flawed? I'm sure it is, but I would suspect that any sort of evaluation which cannot be quantified would be flawed," he said. "There are probably lawyers out there who are very good lawyers who haven't been selected as Super Lawyers."
All the designation means, Mr. Lang said, is that a lawyer has been practicing within a field of law for a long period of time, and has "some degree of reputation from other lawyers for being competent in his field."
Some lawyers compete for a Super Lawyers designation, but only to add to an already strong resume.
Todd Berkey, a partner at Edgar Snyder & Associates and six-time Super Lawyers honoree, was quick to distinguish his Super Lawyers honor from some of his firm's other recognitions.
"Other than Super Lawyers, some of these organizations have rigorous processes and are very exclusive," he said, naming the National Board of Trial Advocacy and Million Dollar Advocates Forum as examples. "I don't think anybody can criticize or attack those organizations for the way they accept members.
"As far as Super Lawyers is concerned, that's a little bit of a different situation. That process is not as rigorous or extensive as one of the others."
Whitney Hughes, director of the Allegheny County Bar Association's legal referral service, said the Supers Lawyers directory can work, but finding a lawyer is more about finding the right person, rather than the best.
"Trust your gut. It's all about finding someone you can have a good working relationship with," she said. "It's kind of like online dating."