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Super Duper: “Super Lawyer” Designations are Misleading Advertising.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | June 8, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle (c) 2009

So, the Super Lawyers magazine came in the mail last week. The cover says: “The Top Attorneys in Pennsylvania plus Delaware.” Among the cover articles: “Nadeem Bezar grew up around doctors. Now he sues them.”

Not to pick on Nadeem — he didn’t write this stupid tabloid headline and he might even have been gravely embarrassed to see it. Or to criticize the lawyers who are named in the magazine. Among the names I recognize (relatively few in number) there are none whom I would call ordinary. In fact, the few whom I know well enough to evaluate would get my vote, assuming I had a vote.

The process of selection is interesting. Super Lawyers are nominated by other lawyers and vetted by the staff of the magazine, assigning points under a set of criteria like verdicts, settlements, scholarly publications, pro-bono work. Multiple nominations also yield multiple points, subject to controls to prevent reciprocal nominations or orchestrated mass nominations. Then the final selections are made by “blue ribbon panels” comprised of . . . the highest point-getters among the nominees. In other words, the Super Lawyers select each other.

Not surprisingly, the Super Lawyers in Pennsylvania come predominantly from Philadelphia and a handful of surrounding counties and to a lesser degree, Pittsburgh and its environs. There are very few from smaller, more remote counties. Solo and small practitioners, which comprise a large percentage of the bar, are not represented much at all. The vast majority of Super Lawyers seem to come from medium sized firms whose advertising message is that their star players are every bit as good and maybe better than their counterparts at the large law firms.

But the problem with the brand isn’t that the Super Lawyers themselves are unqualified or, as a group, unrepresentative. It is the message that the designation “Super Lawyer” implies. Yes, Super Lawyer is to lawyer as Superman is to man. In the American culture, Superman leaps tall buildings in a single bound. So what does Super Lawyer imply? “My Super Lawyer can lick your ordinary lawyer in court with one hand tied behind his back!” — thats what a typical consumer of legal services is likely to think.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s ethics panel in its slightly famous Opinion No. 39, issued in 2006, thought so too. New Jersey prohibits its lawyers from advertising as Superlawyers or even participating in the selection process. Why? Because, the public can easily be mislead by the use of superlatives in lawyer advertising.

An example, chosen at random from many similar Super Lawyer ads on the internet, is the announcement of McDermott Will & Emery, a well-known and highly regarded Washington DC firm. This announcement incorrectly indicates that Super Lawyers constitute the top 5% of lawyers in the jurisdiction. Yet, the Super Lawyers web site says only that the number of Super Lawyers is limited to 5% of the lawyer population in that locality, not the top 5%. The MW&E announcement then modestly states that “several” of its partners had been named as Super Lawyers. Count ’em: there are eighteen, spread over more than eighteen practice areas. Moreover, two are erroneously designated as being among the top 100 lawyers in Washington. (Correction:according to Super Lawyers magazine, that statement should be revised to say that two of its partners received point ratings among the 100 highest given DC Super Lawyer nominees.)

The Super Lawyers magazine may carefully draw such distinctions, but they are immediately lost when the newly-minted Super Lawyers themselves republish the information.

The fact is, as anybody knows, that there is no way to determine the top 100 lawyers in Washington DC, Philadelphia or any other major city. But even if we could, what practical use would such information be? A lawyer only becomes super when he or she is a perfect match for the task that a client needs to have performed. This includes relevant knowledge and experience as well as an appropriate price tag. It may include other elusive qualities, such as patience, perceptive ability or even the ability to persist in the face of discouraging developments. The best lawyer for one case may be a terrible match for another. All 100 of the so-called top lawyers in Philadelphia may be woefully wrong for your case.

As Carolyn Elefant never tires of pointing out in My Shingle, lawyers who find their niche are frequently the best the the world for serving clients in their chosen specialty. Find that groove and any of us can become a real life super hero, rescuing our clients from peril.


CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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