Q&A: Toby Eccleshall

Toby Eccleshall, editor of Chambers USA (photo: Douglas Fry)

Ahead of the start of research for Chambers USA 2021, editor Toby Eccleshall talks to Tom Wicker about how the guide will be addressing diversity and inclusion and tackling COVID-19.

I understand that the Chambers research team has been working remotely during the pandemic. How has that been? 

The switch to remote working was a relatively smooth one. Our IT and operations teams did a fantastic job in making sure everyone was set up to work from home in a short space of time, which meant that disruption was kept to a minimum. Of course, we have had to adapt to a new way of working, but technology and the team’s hard work has made that possible.

It has been an incredibly busy few months, which in a way has been a welcome distraction from everything going on in the world, but it has not come without its challenges. However, we were delighted that we managed to release the USA 2020 rankings as planned. My Deputy Editors deserve immense credit for their professionalism and dedication in this time.

It’s also a challenging time for law firms and their clients right now. Will you be modifying your methodology and information-gathering to reflect this? 

We do not feel that we will have to make wholesale changes to the research process, as it is robust and can withstand many different challenges. Of course, we must adapt to any changes to the legal profession that we are presented with in order for our rankings to continue to reflect the market. However, we will not know exactly what is going to be required until after the first submissions deadline and probably well into research.

We will be approaching every ranking decision with COVID as an underlying factor to bear in mind. We know for certain areas we are not going to be able to apply the same level of scrutiny as previous years because of changes in the market. For example, you cannot expect firms to be handling the same amount of M&A in previous years given the slowdown in large-scale transactions, with certain industries particularly badly affected.

We also must bear in mind the uncertainty of the six months ahead of us. While we are all optimistic that the global economy will bounce back, the reality is we are in the middle of the pandemic and it would be foolish of me to try to predict what the world is going to look like by the time US research comes to an end in January. Companies who prove they can adapt and innovate are going to put themselves in the best possible position to emerge from this global crisis thriving, and I want Chambers to be in that category.

Therefore, we will certainly be tweaking our research techniques where necessary. We fully understand the difficult situation that firms find themselves in and want to continue to work with them to ensure we get the information we need to make our assessments, which is why we pushed all of our submission deadlines by around a month.

Will you be exploring the legal and financial impact of COVID-19 in the rankings of certain practice areas?

Yes, we certainly want to learn more about the effect COVID-19 is having across the legal market and it will likely form a key component of our interviews with lawyers. However, it’s a balancing act for us, as we want to showcase the realities of the market but also factor in the fact that it is currently too early to predict what the long term impact on different practice areas will be. The situation might be clearer towards the end of research, but we will have to wait and see.

“We will be approaching every ranking decision with COVID as an underlying factor to bear in mind”

Are there any other key changes or new categories in the upcoming Chambers USA research schedule that firms should be aware of? 

We have added around 90 new areas for firms to submit to this year. Notable additions include USA – Nationwide Congressional Investigations and Crisis Management, as well as New York Shareholder Activism and Takeover Defence tables. The full list of new areas to submit to can be found on the USA page of our website.

We have also introduced a new submission template, which strips back some of the information we had asked for in the past. We are now also asking firms to provide diversity statistics.

Another change is that we will no longer be contacting referees for certain Nationwide categories. These are typically those where these practice areas are covered in most other states. Firms should pay close attention to the research schedule to see those categories affected.

Chambers has now introduced a request for Diversity & Inclusion data in its submission template. Can you expand on the reasons behind this and how this information will be used?

The topic of D&I comes up in an increasing number of the calls with firms’ referees we conduct. It’s clear that many companies are factoring diversity into their decision making process when selecting outside counsel and we want to be able to have a better understanding of firms’ D&I stats so we can find a way to present clients with more information.

We haven’t yet decided how it will be used, as it largely depends on how many firms participate. We don’t intend to name and shame firms with low numbers of lawyers from diverse backgrounds, but instead it’s likely we’ll try to establish industry averages and highlight firms who perform well in these areas. If firms do not participate, we may write in our editorial that they did not provide D&I statistics.

More information about our use of D&I data can be found on the submissions page of our website.

Should firms and referees also expect Diversity & Inclusion questions during the Chambers interview?

Yes they should. Over the past few years the topic of D&I has become an increasingly prominent aspect of our interviews and we want to continue to drive the conversation forward. We will look for our interviewees to assist us in identifying and ranking more women attorneys, alongside lawyers from different racial backgrounds and other underrepresented groups.

The researchers may ask lawyers about their firm’s D&I initiatives and how they are furthering opportunities for lawyers from diverse backgrounds. It would never be our intention to criticise or catch people out, but it is a subject that we at Chambers feel passionately about and something that clients talk to us about all the time. We want to be able to share this information with our D&I team so we can identify pioneers in this space.

“Researchers may ask lawyers about their firm’s D&I initiatives and how they are furthering opportunities for lawyers from diverse backgrounds”

What are your top tips for preparing a good Chambers USA submission?

I’d mention three things:

Firstly, you should always pay attention to the practice area definitions on our website. That will give you a good indication of the type of work we are looking for and therefore whether it is appropriate for your firm to submit. If anything is ever unclear, then please do get in touch with a member of the editorial team.

Secondly, if your firm doesn’t have any ranked lawyers, focus on a few per year as opposed to trying to get everyone ranked at once. We don’t have any rules against ranking over a certain number of lawyers per firm every year, but because of the set number of work highlights and referees permitted for each submission, we often find that when firms try to put everyone forward, we struggle to get enough information to make a valid judgement on whether they should be ranked. Focus on a few unranked attorneys each year and try to build it up gradually.

Thirdly, make use of the products that Chambers has to offer. If you don’t understand a ranking decision, ask the editorial team for feedback and we can often provide some limited guidance. If you want the full picture, Chambers Insight reports are an incredibly useful resource for shaping your future submissions and making broader strategic decisions about your business.

At such a complex time in the US and globally, what keeps a guide like Chambers USA relevant? Why should firms continue to participate in the process?

In a time like these, clients are facing a huge number of commercial and legal challenges that threaten the future of their businesses. As such, they want to take as few risks as possible and select the best possible lawyers to navigate the sheer volume of issues that have arisen because of the global pandemic. They look to Chambers for the reassurance that they are in safe hands and to justify to their CEOs or boards that the firm they have selected is the right one for the job. It is going to be a hugely competitive time for law firms as they battle with one another for business. A Chambers ranking is the definitive sign of excellence.

We anticipate a huge amount of speculation about who is weathering the storm better than others, so submitting to Chambers gives you the opportunity to tell your side of the story and demonstrate how your firm is adapting to meet the challenges ahead. Firms that can show they are successful in this will ultimately achieve higher rankings, which is what clients want to see. Therefore, a Chambers ranking will be as vital as ever in helping firms win business.