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Here we stand, I among them. Fearless crusaders. Defenders of truth and justice. Black robes rippling in the wind, we are (cue heroic music here), Super Lawyers! As everyone knows, in addition to a billowing robe or cape, any super hero must have super powers — some extraordinary talent that mere mortals don’t possess. Surely, as Super Lawyers, we must be blessed with some special endowment that makes us better than our peers. Of course we do. Or do we? We get named to various “Best Attorney” lists, Super Lawyers among them, because we are enticed and/or pressured into forking over enough cash to purchase slick profiles (that we write ourselves), and into exerting enough effort to power our firm’s aggressive vote-solicitation campaign. These best-of lists now have little to do with actually being “the best” — in fact, they don’t even really tell us what it means to be “the best” — and, instead, have everything to do with money. It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve always been fascinated with lists. Almanacs are essentially lists of the biggest, tallest or longest whatevers. Remember “The Book of Lists,” published in the 1970s? Or the American Film Institute’s list of the funniest movies? Now, tune into VH1, E! or some other cable network, and you’ll get “The 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever,” or some ranking of best-kept Hollywood secrets, sexiest stars or pop icons. In the legal profession, we’re long accustomed to perusing lists, usually of the largest or most profitable firms, measured by the number of lawyers or by revenue. Lists identifying particular lawyers were less common. They were compiled only sporadically — say, every 10 years — and nominees were interviewed by reporters, who actually made the effort to interview clients, judges and peers, reviewed news clippings and docket sheets, and researched the lawyers’ backgrounds before naming them to their lists. But now, it’s as if we have year-round best-of lists. One month it’s the best in Texas. The next, it’s the best in Dallas. Then, it’s the best neighborhood lawyers with blond hair, followed in quick succession by the best left-handed litigators, best attorneys of Germanic descent and so on. Or, one I would like to make, “Best Attorneys Who Don’t Play Golf.” Legitimate best-of lists are meant to be provocative. They can generate meaningful debate about what it means to be the best. And that is where today’s “best attorney” lists break down. Reading one of these lists doesn’t tell us anything about what makes a good lawyer. There is room for debate. Some might view a good lawyer as someone who wins a lot of cases, wins the biggest judgment, completes the largest transaction or defends the most famous clients. Others may find superlatives among those who provide stellar personal service, give the most value for the money. The best attorneys might be the ones who devote the most hours to pro bono or behave the most ethically. It might be a combination of any or all of these. Figuring out what makes a good lawyer one of the best also depends on whom you ask. Do you ask your firm peers (the ones who know you best) — or other lawyers (the ones who know of your reputation)? Current and former clients, not to mention judges, may all have their own opinions on who is the best. Absent any kind of baseline then, these lists are useless in educating the public. They are popularity contests. Seriously. For the upcoming second annual Super Lawyers list (more than 5,000 named) published in Texas Monthly, you can nominate yourself, someone in your firm or your sister at another firm. Then, smelling blood in the water, the firms go after votes like sharks after chum. That’s right, firms bargain with each other: “You vote for the lawyers in our firm, and we’ll vote for the lawyers in your firm.” Basically, whoever gets the most votes wins, that is, gets on the lists. Oh, sure, some staff person will make sure the winners are licensed to practice and haven’t been disciplined or arrested, but that’s pretty much it. It’s a bit like determining a list of the best living Americans by taking a pulse. Talk about a meaningful list. Attorney A got a lot of people to vote for him, and he’s in good standing with the Bar. Well, heck, that’s enough to sign him up to represent any multimillion-dollar company, right? Oh, and did we mention that anyone else, from any firm, anywhere, for any reason, also can establish a presence in some of these lists by buying ad space in the publication, telling the world how great he or she is. The price for this self-aggrandizement? If it’s Super Lawyers we’re talking about, that’ll run $2,995 for a basic profile in both of its publications, $19,995 for a fancy one-page “platinum” profile, and an eye-popping $37,995 for a pull-out-the-stops two-page platinum profile. Unfortunately, there is even a higher price. Firm dollars are fungible. Money spent on a fancy magazine display is money that can’t be spent on anything else: associate training, staff appreciation, pro bono, ethics seminars, continuing legal education, you name it. So even while we’re preening for the publication’s cameras, we’re siphoning funds from more valuable pursuits that tend to do more to enhance the image and prestige of lawyers everywhere. If all this sounds degrading, it should. And if we want to stop it, we, the lawyers, have to do it. We have to push ourselves away from the grotesque feasts at the trough of best-of campaigning and advertising. So, stop sending those ubiquitous e-mails. Stop buying ads. Stop buying profiles. Stop the mind-set that says your firm will be hurt if it doesn’t keep up with the ad-buying Joneses. It will be hard, I know. I’ve done it myself. I’ve made practically every list there is (although I missed out on that left-handed litigator survey), and my inflated ego has the stretch marks to prove it. I’ve been there brokering vote deals by chain e-mail, buying ad space, and paying for better public relations than the next guy. But it has to stop somewhere. Only by eliminating the current tawdry process can we get back to ranking lawyers — if we must — based on solid criteria, developed through serious debate on what it means to be “the best.” So I’ll be spending my money elsewhere. As for my cape, it’s in mothballs. Super Lawyer Tom Melsheimer is managing principal of the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson, a national intellectual property, complex litigation and corporate firm. He can be reached at [email protected]

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