Super Lawyers Unmasked

The small Minneapolis start-up has become a certified nationwide blockbuster. Can it survive success?

IN THE 17 years since its birth, Super Lawyers has grown from a four-color flight of fancy into a multimillion-dollar empire. Started on a whim by a two-man team in Minneapolis, the rapidly expanding operation now reaches 47 states, with plans to conquer the rest of the U.S. by next year. It's a simple concept, really: Find the best attorneys in town, then present the list to all the regular Joes and Janes who, in this litigation-happy society, can't help but need legal services.

With tens of thousands of attorneys on its roster—and many more clamoring to get on the list—Super Lawyers is in legal circles the equivalent of making the All-Star Team. And many are smitten by the self-congratulations. They shell out thousands of dollars for ads in Super Lawyers supplements running in prestigious magazines and newspapers across the country—from Los Angeles magazine to the New York Times.

But as the list has grown, so has criticism of it. In New Jersey, the Supreme Court is threatening to ban Super Lawyers, charging that the name misleads the public and breaks the state's advertising rules.

Even in Minnesota, where the list began, Super Lawyers has come under fire. Attorneys—some named to the list, others not—say that the methodology is suspect. They claim that big firms frequently pad their statistics by recruiting lawyers to nominate their colleagues, and that the list is more a measure of a lawyer's networking skills than of courtroom performance. Although Super Lawyers purports to identify the top 5 percent of attorneys in the state, the poll that is a key determinate of who makes the list counts the opinion of less than 10 percent of the state's legal professionals.

Far from a valuable consumer service, critics charge, Super Lawyers is an ad-revenue-generating, magazine-selling gimmick. Now some are wondering: Can Super Lawyers survive its stunning success?

HATRED OF LAWYERS is nothing new. Back in the days of robber barons, lawyers were known for helping to bust unions and ensuring that workers' rights were kept to a minimum. To make matters worse, the profession was overrun, in the words of the American Bar Association, by the "ambulance chaser," who used a "system of runners" to bring accident victims to lawyers for a fee and lured clients through other "nefarious methods."

In 1908, the ABA decided enough was enough and published the Canon of Professional Ethics, a sweeping set of rules meant to standardize the legal profession and improve its public image. Among the new rules, which every state quickly adopted: Lawyers could no longer advertise.

That, more or less, is how things stood for the next two generations. Enter the bearded, whip-smart John Bates and his dapper, brown-haired schoolmate, Van O'Steen, two lawyers cutting their teeth in Phoenix in the early 1970s. After two years working at Legal Aid, they decided to open a practice of their own, offering basic legal services to people not quite poor enough for government help. Their business model was built on volume, and before long they came to a realization: To turn a profit, they'd have to get more people through the door, and that meant getting the word out.

On February 22, 1976, Bates and O'Steen placed an ad in the Arizona Republic. It was nothing fancy, just a box that offered legal services for divorces, adoptions, name changes, and simple bankruptcy, all "at very reasonable fees."

But the state bar association recognized the pair's gambit for what it was: an attempt to turn the legal profession into any other kind of business, one where lawyers would compete for clients through advertising. The bar association, run by established, well-heeled attorneys comfortable with the status quo, immediately ordered Bates and O'Steen to stop advertising, adding injury to insult with a week's suspension of their law licenses.

Bates and O'Steen appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court. They argued that rich folks could find a lawyer at the country club, but poor and middle-class citizens had little idea of what to look for. It wasn't enough to sway the judges. The Arizona Supreme Court, after all, had written the very rules—liberally cribbed from the ABA—that Bates and O'Steen were trying to overturn.

Yet the pair would not be denied. Within a year, the case was before the highest court in the land. And in June 1977, the black-robed justices of the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of Bates and O'Steen. Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the majority, said that legal advertising helps "inform the public and allocate resources in our free enterprise system."

Overnight, the previous status quo was replaced by the standard that holds to this day: Lawyers can advertise, as long as they don't mislead. The new standard, which takes any highfalutin debate about lawyer dignity out of the equation, paved the way for all kinds of shameless advertising. In the Yellow Pages you can find ads that shout, "WE WILL FIGHT FOR YOU!" On TV, aggressive men in suits point at the viewer and pronounce, "Our lawyers can help you get money!" And in what is perhaps a watershed moment, a recent billboard for a divorce lawyer in Chicago featured a picture of a busty woman dressed in skimpy underwear on one side and a bare-chested hunk on the other with the advice: "Life's short. Get a divorce."

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