Q&A: Toby Eccleshall

As the first deadline for the next Chambers USA research cycle approaches, Tom Wicker hears from editor Toby Eccleshall what firms can expect when it comes to new categories, client references, diversity & inclusion and how COVID-19 will inform the rankings.

Are there any key changes or new categories in this year’s research schedule that firms should be aware of?

Last year, following the outbreak of COVID-19, we pushed back the deadlines for submissions back a month, meaning that the first submissions were due in mid-July, as opposed to mid-June. This year, we are continuing that approach, so Chambers USA research will take place between August and February again this year.

There are a number of new areas we have opened up for submissions, including New York Banking & Finance and Private Equity: Buyouts; Massachusetts and New Jersey Life Sciences; USA – Nationwide False Claims Act, SPACs and Offshore Energy; and many more. Please check the research schedule closely.

Are there any changes to the submission template? And why is it important that firms use it?

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

We have made a couple of small changes to the submissions template. We have added a link to a Survey Monkey page for when firms want to provide firm-wide D&I stats. We have also included a box for firms to include any details on mitigating circumstances for any of their lawyers they’d want us to take into account when ranking, for example for those who are on long-term sick leave or those on maternity/paternity leave.

“We have added a link to a Survey Monkey page for when firms want to provide firm-wide D&I stats”

Using the submission template ensures we get the information we need when deciding on our rankings and that we know where to find what we are looking for. It is crucial in ensuring nothing gets missed or omitted, which can damage a firm’s ranking.

It remains a challenging time for firms and their clients as they continue to deal with the impact of the pandemic. How will this be reflected in the research process – for example, in relation to the time frame for work highlights and submission deadlines?

As with last year, we are still being flexible and understanding when it comes to assessing firms’ recent performance and the impact of COVID-19 on their work. For practice areas that have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic, we will make allowances and adjust our expectations accordingly.

When conducting research, again, we will be flexible with referees on the timings of our research calls and work with them if and when they run into any difficulties. With regards to submissions, we will again be understanding if firms experience delays and we will work with them to find the best solution.

“We are being flexible and understanding when it comes to assessing the impact of COVID-19”

As you explore the legal and financial impact of COVID-19 in the rankings of certain practice areas, should firms expect to see greater opportunity for changes in some rankings over others?

Yes, certainly. Chambers acts as a mirror to the legal profession, so as the market adapts to meet the challenges caused by the pandemic, we will also adapt to ensure they are reflected in our rankings. If firms are pumping extra resources into certain practice areas to match the direction the market is moving in, you would expect there to be an impact on the related ranking tables. For example, last year we introduced a SPACs ranking table because of the significant number of transactions in this space over the past 18 months.

“We will ensure that the ways the market has adapted to meet the challenges of the pandemic are reflected”

Could you expand on how national practice area rankings that no longer accept referees are decided?

This is a continuation of a policy we introduced last year. We don’t accept referees for practices areas where we already have widespread statewide coverage, such as Corporate/M&A, Banking & Finance, Bankruptcy, Labor & Employment and Real Estate, as well as others, where we have ranking tables in most, if not all, state tables. The reason being, by the time we research these areas towards the end of the cycle, we already have more than enough information upon which to build our Nationwide tables. Limiting referee outreach gives us more time to analyse this information and ensure our Nationwide tables are captured properly.

“We don’t accept referees for practices areas where we already have widespread statewide coverage”

We still accept referees for nationwide practice areas where we have limited or no statewide coverage, such as Government Contracts, Life Sciences and Transportation, or specialist areas such as those in our Energy & Natural Resources or Projects tables.

If a firm seeking to improve its national ranking in a  practice area submits referees (but not a written submission) in certain states, will this feedback be taken into account as part of the national research?

All feedback from statewide research will be taken into account in the relevant practice area, but firms’ best chance of improving their nationwide rankings is by providing written submissions and referees to those statewide areas. Only providing referees to statewide sections without a related written submission is unlikely to result in an improvement in their statewide ranking, which could affect their chances of improving their nationwide ranking. The two don’t always go together hand in hand, but it is one of the first things we consider.

“The best chance of improving nationwide rankings is by providing submissions and referees to statewide areas”

What would you advise firms to do in the case of individual referees who may be provided across multiple categories throughout the research cycle, to ensure that their feedback is captured?

The best thing to do is submit those referees who you know are going to talk about multiple areas as early as possible. That way all the information we need is on our system when research starts. It’s also advisable to let the referee in question know that you’d want them to talk about more than one practice area, so they can be prepared when we talk to them.

“Submit referees you know are going to talk about multiple areas as early as possible”

It’s important to note that the questions we ask during calls are always open-ended and designed to elicit as much feedback as possible from referees as possible on all the different practice groups/lawyers with whom they work.

Is it the case that Chambers will now ask referees who have been given for multiple practice areas last year about those areas during this research cycle, too, in addition to their current referrals?

We’ve used this approach on the USA Guide for many years and will be continuing with it during the upcoming cycle. It’s a useful way to get as much feedback as possible. It can be particularly revealing when a client no longer uses a law firm they were put forward by a previous year!

What would you advise firms to do, if their referees do not believe they have received an interview request from a Chambers researcher – and they have already checked their spam folder?

They should get in touch with the Chambers researcher. The solution may be to give the researcher’s contact details to the referee so they can get in touch, however, please always check with the researcher first.

As you know, Chambers USA has been added to the criteria for the latest version of the Mansfield Test. How would you advise firms on selecting their nominated lawyers from a Diversity & Inclusion perspective?

It’s crucial that when factoring D&I into their submissions, firms ensure that they are allocating work highlights and referees to attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds and not just listing their name on the submission without giving us any extra information. This way they have a much higher chance of being ranked, as it will ensure we have sufficient information upon which to make a decision.

Why is the Diversity & Inclusion data you request in the submission important and how is it used?

The D&I data is crucial in giving us context around the makeup of the legal profession. It enables us to assess whether our rankings are representative of the market and informs the direction in which we take research. We would encourage all firms to submit their data, either at a practice group or firmwide level. 

“D&I data enables us to assess whether our rankings are representative of the market”

What Diversity & Inclusion questions should firms and referees expect during the Chambers interview?

We have made a concerted effort over the years to normalise the topic of D&I with those we speak to as part of our research, but we appreciate that there are some who do not feel they are able to talk about it, so we are always respectful of that. We may ask referees whether they have an opinion on the firm’s commitment to D&I, and whether they are happy to share it.

With lawyer interviews, researchers may ask whether the interviewee is able to comment on the firm’s D&I initiatives and enquire about lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds from their firm and the wider market that they are able to provide feedback on. However, it largely depends on the interviewee – if they are engaged on the subject, the researcher might ask them more about it.

“We may ask referees whether they have an opinion on a firm’s commitment to D&I”

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

I would consider these to be the most important things to bear in mind when putting together your Chambers submission:

Don’t write too much on your work highlight – we don’t need the full story, just a short summary. Often two or three sentences will suffice.

Make sure to back up your arguments with facts. If you are the world’s leading M&A firm, give us information to support that claim.

Always try to highlight the strength in depth in the team by not allowing one single partner to dominate, unless, of course, they are the only partner within the practice group. Furthermore, ensure you are giving referees and work highlights to every lawyer you want to get ranked, although you may have to be strategic – you only have 20 work highlights and referees, so you don’t want to spread your allocation too thinly. Sometimes it is better to focus on getting one or two lawyers ranked this year and focusing on the others the next year.

“Make sure to back up your arguments with facts”

Pay close attention to the practice area definitions and if you are ever unsure about your suitability or need some guidance, please talk to the editorial team. Finally, we are always on the lookout for new firms to rank in Chambers, so if you haven’t submitted before and are unsure about the process, please get in touch.

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?

With all of the economic uncertainty caused by the outbreak of COVID-19, the world needs excellent lawyers. Many clients are in a very vulnerable position and seek the comfort of knowing they have the best legal representation possible, and so look to Chambers for guidance.

Participating in Chambers research ensures we have the information we need in order to accurately assess your firm and gaining Chambers rankings means you stand out among the strong competition.

“We saw an increase in the number of submissions we received last year”

The landscape is becoming ever more competitive. Despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, we saw an increase in the number of submissions we received for Chambers USA 2021 compared to last year, which shows that law firms across the country recognise the importance of Chambers rankings to their clients.

For upcoming Chambers USA deadlines, see: Research Schedule | Chambers and Partners

Tom Wicker is a rankings and awards consultant and former editor of Chambers USA. For more information on his background and services, see the ‘Legal directory consulting’ page or email him at: tomw@tomwicker.org.