Hit hard in recent years by the rise of Google, the evolution of law firm Web sites and the emergence of competing Internet-based legal directories and ratings services, 140-year-old Martindale-Hubbell is giving itself a technological face-lift in a bid to remain vital.

In mid-July, the company, a unit of the LexisNexis Group of London-based publishing giant Reed Elsevier, announced that it had entered a partnership with Mountain View, Calif.-based LinkedIn, a career-focused social network. The move follows decisions earlier this year to incorporate video clips and “visibility ratings” into Martindale’s beefed-up lawyer profiles.

The goal, says John Lipsey, Martindale’s vice president for corporate counsel services, is to push the company beyond the traditional directory service. The company’s Web site currently draws about 40,000 visitors per week from users seeking access to its nearly 900,000 lawyer profiles.

“Martindale is in the midst of a transformation from the directory business to becoming the global legal professional network,” Lipsey says. “Part of our strategy is providing more content and information to consumers.”

LINKING UP WITH LINKEDIN

Under the LinkedIn agreement — in which no cash changed hands — Martindale users will be able to use their LinkedIn relationships when conducting searches. Scott Roberts, LinkedIn’s senior director of business development, says the site expects to strike similar content-sharing deals with other companies in the coming months. (The New York Times signed on last week.)

In its negotiations with Martindale, LinkedIn retained Douglas Mandell, founding partner of San Francisco technology transactions boutique the Mandell Law Group. LexisNexis senior corporate counsel David Ciolli in Dayton, Ohio, represented Martindale on the deal.

In practical terms, the arrangement enables LinkedIn users to tap their contacts in searching for information on a particular lawyer or law firm on Martindale.

The agreement also works in reverse, says Lipsey, by offering lawyers a rich source of potential client contacts through LinkedIn’s comprehensive professional network.

“In networking there’s a compelling need to leverage one’s larger business and personal network for business purposes,” Lipsey says. Still, he acknowledges that lawyers often like to keep their own counsel. To that end, he says, “We’re in the process of developing a lawyers-only professional network called Martindale-Hubbell Connected.”

MARTINDALE 2.0

Lipsey says the advent of legal networking and ratings competitors like Avvo, LawLink and Legal OnRamp did not drive Martindale’s new technological push.

“We’ve heard from our customers about the high level of interest and demand for a lawyers-only network in a trusted environment from a trusted vendor,” he says. “But we’re also focused on utilizing the technology of the day to connect the legal industry in other ways.”

Martindale is in the process of completely revamping its peer review ratings system by introducing client reviews, corporate counsel reviews of outside counsel and third-party objective data to create a more “holistic” ratings standard. While the effort is separate from Martindale’s partnership with LinkedIn, Lipsey says it’s part of a broader strategy of providing “more in-depth and meaningful decision-support data.”

Martindale’s commitment to its transformation strategy has allowed the company to retain and win back several key clients, says Lipsey, adding that company policy prevents him from disclosing client names. (In recent years Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Dechert have left the Martindale umbrella, and others have considered doing the same given the increased costs associated with maintaining user profiles.)

“I think Martindale does a good job bringing new things to the table to modernize and add value,” says a business development director at an Am Law 100 firm on Martindale who requested anonymity when discussing firm marketing matters. “You look for the greatest value for the dollar spent and while Martindale is still the gold standard in terms of ways to find lawyers, I don’t think people still see it as a final destination,” the executive says. “So it’ll be interesting watching an old-line company reinvent itself.”

INCREASING VISIBILITY AND STREAMING VIDEO

Martindale has also recently unveiled its new “visibility rankings,” which are based strictly on the number of page views an individual lawyer’s profile receives. The rankings are updated weekly, says Martindale director of product management Jon Lin, and can be accessed by setting the search parameters for all U.S. lawyers and then sorting the results by visibility.

Lin compares the new functionality to Amazon.com. If someone is browsing cameras on that site and considering a purchase, they’re likely to go with those featured as “most popular.”

According to last week’s numbers, the most “visible” lawyer on Martindale was Marc Kasowitz of New York’s Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. (Perhaps it was Kasowitz’s well-publicized fracas with former IP litigation partner Jeremy Pitcock that helped bolster his numbers.) Also making Martindale’s top 10 list is former Baker & Daniels partner John “Jack” Swarbrick Jr., recently named the new athletic director at the University of Notre Dame.

One factor contributing to the increased visibility of certain profiles is Martindale’s adoption several months ago of the streaming video phenomenon popularized by Web sites like YouTube. Profiles with videos –such as Kasowitz’s, featuring a gentle guitar strum playing in the background as the high-stakes litigator speaks about his firm — tend to do better in the visibility rankings because they appear at the top of search engines such as Google, Lin says.

Lin acknowledges that some lawyers may be tempted to tinker with their ratings — what else are summer associates for? — but says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Maybe they’ll come back more often and check out their profile or pass [others] on to their profile.”

Other legal directory and networking services prefer a more interactive approach less focused on the quantity or quality of numeric rankings.

“The formalization or systemization of ratings actually diminishes their value for sophisticated clients,” says Paul Lippe, former general counsel of Mountain View-based software developer Synopsys and founder of Legal OnRamp, one of the first online social networks developed exclusively for lawyers. Legal OnRamp allows its 4,000-plus users to post on communal message boards, attend Q&A sessions and join practice-specific groups.

“So our model is much more informal and anecdotal,” says Lippe, whose network has grown to include lawyers from more than 200 firms and 400 companies since it launched in early 2007.

But even Lippe — a Silicon Valley veteran who considers himself on the edge of innovation — recognizes the importance of establishing links with mainstays like Martindale. While declining to comment on whether or not he had been approached by either LinkedIn or LexisNexis regarding some form of partnership, Lippe admits that he has spoken with “most of the traditional leaders in the space” and is “actively discussing collaborative scenarios” with several parties.

Despite the challenges that Martindale and others face going forward, one thing is certain. Lawyers will always tout their ratings.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thrope