Chambers USA Trends and Guidance from Kushraj Cheema, North American Research Director
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Kushraj “Kush” Cheema, North America Research Director at Chambers and Partners, a guide offering market-leading reviews, insights and rankings of the top law firms and lawyers across key practice areas.
In his current position, Kush plays a pivotal role in continuing to develop the Chambers USA presence in the United States and strengthening its relationships with law firms of all sizes across the US. He works closely with lawyers and business development teams to ensure that Chambers rankings continue to reflect the legal market and identify emerging practice areas and other opportunities across the legal profession.
Kush previously held the role of Head of USA Research Development, a position he took when Chambers opened its New York office in early 2020. Prior to that, he worked as a USA Deputy Editor and Research Analyst.
Tell our listers about Chambers and Partners and its current global footprint.
At Chambers, we consider ourselves the leading provider of legal research and analysis. We are largely based in London, and we have a small team out here in New York, which faces are U.S. side law firms, U.S. side clients. We have about 6,000 rankings on our website, about 2,000 in New York alone. We conduct our research with a team of about 70 researchers. Overall, in the company there are 200 researchers that speak about 25 different languages. Chambers is the guide to law firms for clients who are unsure about new practice areas, new jurisdictions and new areas. They might be facing legal work, and they do not really know where to turn. We want to provide that independent vetting that can be assurance for quality, much like the Michelin guide for law firms, I would say.
When you say clients, what types of clients are we talking about?
Across the board really, these come from state actives, public sector organizations and state governments themselves. Largely they are big corporate clients who would be using the guide to source the new law firms. We are primarily focused on business-to-business in the U.S. The USA guide focuses on big corporations. On our UK guide we have a lot more consumer-facing sections, personal injury and workplace discrimination. It’s an area that we are interested in expanding. My heart breaks every time I see a personal injury advertisement on the television; I think that these ads are fantastic, but we should be looking to categorize these firms ourselves on our end. But it is just such a huge market in the United States that I just would not know where to start, so now we start with corporations.
What is the value of a Chambers USA ranking and why does it matter?
The value of Chambers is that there are moments of uncertainty where clients are not sure where to turn. If you are a senior executive at a big public corporation and you are facing a DOJ charge or an SEC investigation, then you need your own individual counsel. You have no idea where to turn, and we want to be there. When you have a big corporation, maybe it’s a China-based corporation that has got an office in New York who was handling a transaction out here, and they do not know where to turn, or local council do not have advice, you can turn to Chambers.
This is an independent, vetted list where you can be assured of quality– that is the value of Chambers. We know there are other ancillary uses: law firms use it for recruitment, recruiters use it for recruitment, and lots of lawyers themselves use it for referrals as well. But the main point is that it is the drive to win new business for law firms for clients who are unsure about the market and want a deep dive into those who can handle their concerns.
Does the pursuit of rankings benefit marketing resources or divert them?
My number one answer would be an avenue to new businesses, and I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a diversion. And I think that’s what Chambers does. It is an avenue to new business for lawyers and for practice groups. We have done innumerable market surveys, kind of listing exercises, and the message we get back globally effectively is that this is a good tool to identify yourself to potential new clients. Past fit, however, I think is a misconception of what people think Chambers does.
We have had some people thinking that, for instance, a big company is going to look at Chambers USA litigation rankings for New York, see a name there, pick it, and that it is all done. That is not what we are doing. This is kind of a first pick, a first look at people who are verified, people who are independently verified and have had the track record to handle your concern no matter what the size, no matter what the complexity. And we say to clients that this is who we would recommend as a group to take your procedures, handle your RFPs, your procurement exercises, and this is the list that you should go to. I think that is where some individuals may see us as a diversion, but I would not say that it is the case that we’re saying that we are the be all and end all a client selecting a law firm.
Is there a special formula or a secret sauce to getting ranked?
Gina Rubel: It is important to reiterate that the people you put down on your form, the referees, are vetted, making sure that they are going to be responsive, that you have already asked them rather than to assume they will respond to a Chamber’s request. Because I agree, I think that is part of the secret sauce, the special formula. Not just the track record but you have to have the people to talk to.
Kush Cheema: Definitely. It’s always better that they know that we are contacting them. What we have encouraged law firms to do is to send in people who have a viewpoint across the entire team that they have worked with. Let’s say you are a big organization, and you are hiring Ted Wells for something, that interaction is going to be, if you refer a GC for that, they will have an interaction with the lawyer, the lead lawyer two or three times, and that’s effectively when they have less time to speak with us.
If we get someone lower down in the hierarchy, perhaps they have experience with that kind of lead attorney, they have experience with the second chair partner who they have been working with day to day, they have experience with the associates, and we get that kind of holistic vision of the practice in its entire depth. That is useful for us. That is not to say that we do not want to speak to GCs and the CLOs, we really appreciate their time. They do give us their time every year and we sing their praises for it. But if you do feel, for instance, you might be overloading one client, then it might be a nice idea to send us someone slightly lower down the hierarchy who has experience across the entire practice group.
How does Chambers train the junior researchers to understand respective areas of practice and assess sophisticated responses from law firms?
We have vigorous training procedures in place. We come from a legal background. We note everything down. We provide all that in a big way for the researchers. As they are starting off, they are overseen for four weeks — they do not start a big section. This way they are 120% confident that they can take on the specific area of practice area of coverage. It is good to know that whatever decision a researcher makes it is always reviewed by a deputy editor. Our current USA deputy editors have about 75 years of collective experience working at Chambers, seeing the market across its depth for years on end.
The decision the researcher made is reviewed by people who have that long-term view. That decision is then reviewed again by the editor. Now that we have this new leadership structure in place, it is reviewed again by me, and I am not really looking forward to that.
We have four layers of checks to make sure that this is something that is accurate, this is something that we can apply our long view to. And if you ever have a concern about research, you can always get in touch. We are always willing to accept that feedback and apply it to its researchers who may need more training.
Gina Rubel: As an attorney myself — and one who runs a PR agency — sometimes we will be assisting with a Chambers application in a practice area that we have never worked in. I find it fascinating and it’ is a great way to learn, but I love knowing that there are these checks and balances in place and quality controls. Because even with a small agency like ours, I once said there is no practice area I have not handled, and then cannabis became legal in many jurisdictions in the United States. I can say that there is always something new coming along, but it is great to hear that.
What advice would you give a firm that has not previously been ranked by Chambers USA to get the attention of the editorial team?
We are always available for discussion; all our details are up on the website. We all have our individual practice areas of coverage, practice area of responsibilities even. I am quite passionate about appellate rankings; I oversee that, and I am never going to give that away. You can get in contact with us and ask us what we are we seeing in the market, and what kind of firms we look for. Our practice area definitions are comprehensive on the website. That provides an idea of the kind of work we’re looking for.
We do recognize that historically we are looking for the firms that the big Fortune 500 companies are going to be retaining for their highest profile work. However, that doesn’t capture the market in its entirety at all. There are local markets that we want to be looking at in a lot more depth. There are these kinds of elite firms in the $250 to $500 million transactional range in New York which we have not historically been very well set up to cover, so that is an area that we are very focused on.
We would love to hear from firms that ask, what can we expand? What can we do to capture the market in its entirety where we have historically had to overlook things because we have been a 300-person organization, five hours ahead of you guys so we only have half the data to investigate everything, to speak with as many people as we can?
Our email inboxes are open, our telephone lines are open. Do let us know and we would be happy to feed that information back to you.
Gina Rubel: And for our listeners, that has really been my experience when I have reached out to a particular editor. I do recommend to our listeners to reach out to someone at Chambers. Don’t only reach out to Kush, there are lots and lots of people to reach out to. He is just one of many, but an important one nonetheless.
What trends are you seeing in the industry and how do they impact your business or your audience?
I see increasing squeeze: While the elite firms continue to make inroads into the middle market, several ALSPs and new law services continue to make headway into the commoditized work, which was traditionally the preserve of law firms.
Increasing consolidation among the Am Law 50-200 firms: Faegre/Drinker Biddle, Troutman Sanders/Pepper Hamilton, Holland & Knight/Thompson & Knight, Dentons’ Project Golden Spike, Nelson Mullin’s growth into a superregional firm suggest legal economies of scale are a driving force in how these firms see the market operating in the future.
Clients are looking to move: Costs are the number one consideration for clients not facing bet-the-company legal issues. Before, clients would hand more straightforward matters to other firms to save on costs, last year a perfect storm of the pandemic, reports on law firm financial performance, associate bonuses, have seen clients telling us that they are closely examining value for money in their existing relationships.
The British are coming: Allen & Overy and Freshfields openings in California, following Clifford Chance’s closure of its last CA office in 2007, is a truly bold move by the UK firms, reversing a trend in the UK of Magic Circle partners decamping for newly arrived American rivals.
What is Chambers doing to improve the diversity of its coverage?
It is a multi-pronged approach and we’ve looked at it internally and externally. Internally we set up a committee of GCs, and in-house legal departments to advise us on how we could improve the quality of our coverage and improve who we identify. As part of that also we introduced unconscious bias training to our researchers. We encourage our researchers now to also speak to, per section of research they do, we need to have a quota of female lawyers, up and comers that we want to speak to. From the law firms themselves, we have asked that they provide a referee spreadsheet that is as close to being gender balanced as possible. We have also asked them to fill out a diversity survey just so we can work out the breakdown of how these firms are made up, particularly on gender lines.
The overriding principle on that front is to diversify the people that we speak to, to diversify the amount of information we get back. If we are speaking to female attorneys, they are more likely to be able to unconsciously communicate. It is unconsciously that you might recommend someone who looks exactly like you as a potential further addition to a table. And if we speak to a broad range of people, that would be fantastic because it allows us to open that loop and speak to more people. And it had a tangible effect — I think last year more than one in three new rankings were awarded to a woman lawyer, a female lawyer even. And I think the trend line of the number of women that we have in the guide has always been creeping up — it is hard to find this information out there, but about 20% of XC partners in Am Law 200 firms are female, and we have hit about 21, 22. So it is going in the right way but there’s a lot of work to do.
One thing that is encouraging for me is that amongst women up-and-comers, amongst women associates we have hit gender parity, there it is 50/50. We know from experience women make up the majority of law firm students now. The classes of female associates I have been reading about the intake over the last few weeks, it seems to be approaching that 50/50 point. As those classes rise through the rankings of their law firms, then we will increase what we see at Chambers as well.
Do you see a diversity issue in the future?
Indeed. I think we have seen with the ABA report that came out a few weeks ago that the share of African American partners has decreased. The share of female partners is increasing slightly but it is not reaching that exponential growth that we would have expected. I think simply typing in chief diversity officer into law.com is enough to send you into depression. I think that it is good that the law firms are aware of the issue and post-George Floyd are a lot more vocal in terms of what they are willing to set. I think we saw it in the UK Slaughter and May set a minimum threshold of 15% diverse partners. And that is Slaughter and May; I would never have expected it from a stayed British law firm. And we have seen that kind of conversation repeated in the United States. We saw two years ago that Brad Carper and Paul Weiss came ahead of the issue they had with their partnership promotion round and tackle the issue head on. And the next year we saw a more diverse class of partners promoted at Paul Weiss.
I have the fear that many other partners who I speak to share because of the grace of my skin color we can have that more candid conversation, is that they fear that these efforts might run out of steam and then where does that leave the legal market where we have come a fair distance? We needed a bit of a push to go a bit further. And I think it is reductive to blame this solely on the law firms. A law firm does not have the ability to change the kind of institutional prejudices that might lead an African American student to not enter a T14 law school. It does not have the ability to influence what high school those students might have gone to. But this is a nationwide issue of institutional racism, institutional discrimination. And there is only so much that you can do as a recruiter to affect that, but I think there is a fear there that we might be running out of steam and where is the next push going to come from?
Gina Rubel: I do not think we can let it run out of steam, and with organizations like Diversity Labs doing the Mansfield rule and firms making public statements to commitment, and GCs making public statements to commitment and requirements, I really do have hope for the future. It is going to take a long time, but I think we have to remember. My dad graduated law school in 1971. There were two women in his class. I graduated law school in 1994 and we were 50% women, and our class was close to 460. On the women’s side we have come a long way in a short amount of time. We have got a lot of work to do when it comes to racial, religious, LGBTQ+, all these other diverse classifications, but I know we are moving in that direction. I am going to believe that the future is going to be this wonderful diversity issue at Chambers that is going to hold the industry accountable for doing the work that we can do.
Kush Cheema: Yeah, part of this might just be me. I tend to see problems around every corner but no, I would not even look five years ago if I would have asked this question in a research call how many women do you have in your group? What are you doing to allow women to be first chair trial lawyers? It would have been met with deafening silence. And I think this year, last year we have seen firms that are at a very high level are willing to talk about this, and not purely because of clients threatening to block their fees, there seems to be a real engagement here. And I think that is the real positive that has come out of the last five years. It is just that I’m British, I’m a cynic.
Gina Rubel: I have felt the same way many times. Having just come, well we are not out of the pandemic yet, but after a pandemic and a lot of women and minorities are challenged because of the pandemic as well, and that’s created other negative effects on diversity in all industries. But I am going to keep putting the hope out there just because that is where I need to be today and always.
What is your favorite book?
Lord of the Rings.
If you could meet one person who’s alive today, who would it be?
What is your superpower?
Languages. I grew up speaking Punjabi and I learned English afterwards. I live in an area that is very French and a lot of the kids I have sent to all kind of language schools. Learning that language as a second language as a kid unlocks your mind. It has always helped me personally and professionally to be able to think in a different way.
When you were a young child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Train driver. I loved public transport. I used to get on the London Underground, get on the buses for no reason whatsoever but to ride them to the end.
What one piece of advice do you have for our listeners?
Take care of your colleagues. I think this year more than any other they showed us that having a conversation about, how are you doing? Are you okay? How are you dealing with a pandemic? It does really help. I am based 5,000 miles away from my friends, from all my colleagues, and I have not been able to go home for two years. And it is nice when I wake up in the morning when I have f 50 emails from the UK to deal with and the first thing that our global editor comes to me and says, how are you? Are you okay? And then we can have the work conversation.
What’s the name of your global editor?
Gina Rubel: Rita, thank you for setting a good example. I am going to make sure she hears that. I think it is important and I agree with that. I also want to thank you for the recommendations of David Lat and Deborah Farone for the podcast. David Lat has already been a guest and Debra, who is a sister from another set of parents, will be a guest on at some point. I am sure they will appreciate knowing that you recommended them.
Kush Cheema: Above the Law is something that I read religiously, and Deborah Farone has lots of fans at Chambers.
Turning the Tables
Gina Rubel: Do you have any questions for me?
Kush Cheema: You’ve worked externally handling the communications for law firms for a long time. How have you seen that market change over the last 10 years and over the last year post-pandemic and during the pandemic?
Gina Rubel: Furia Rubel is 20 years old, and it used to be very reactive communications. Lawyers were not ready for proactive communications, especially in the United States where we had all sorts of ethics rules banning advertising. That goes to show you my age because when I was practicing law lawyers would still say things like, it is not ethical to advertise, which was not true, but they were falling under this old umbrella.
In the last 10 years social media and integrated multimedia campaigns for communications have skyrocketed, and they must. I rarely hear anyone say, “I want to see it in the print version of X publication.” It used to be you had to be in the print version of a business journal or an ALM publication, and that has changed a great deal.
In the last year the biggest change has been the need for much more proactive crisis communications response, planning and management. Whether it be pandemic-related, closing offices, going back to work, getting vaccinated, requiring vaccines, how to deal with an employee who has COVID and was in the office, all those things, HIPAA, to teaching law firms the difference between the court of law and the court of public opinion, media training, and how public relations agencies work with in-house counsel, in-house departments, and outside counsel from a message management and communications perspective relating to litigation communications and trial publicity.
Oftentimes, and this is where I walk a fine line being both a lawyer and a communications professional, all lawyers think they are communications professionals but that is not true. There is a fine line because I will understand what the lawyer, let us say general counsel is saying: “We cannot say X,” and then I am going to ask: “Can we say Y? And here is why I think that is important and how I believe we can say it so that it does not violate any confidentiality, does not cause any issues with potential litigation,” so on and so forth. There is really a marriage more so now than ever, and I would say the pandemic skyrocketed the need for managing partners and other, whether it be office managing partners, firm managing partners, executive committees, or litigators to understand what we do.
They used to say, “Can you just write a press release?” Press releases are just this little thing we do. It is the necessary evil. And the reason why I put it that way is there is so much planning that goes into internal and external communications. When you are talking about the trends you are talking about, competing with ALPs, mergers and acquisitions, diversity issues. And these do not have to be negative, they could all be positive. If you are launching a new diversity initiative, we represent Lathrop GPM, and they have just launched a franchise diversity initiative which is interesting, and it is meant to bring in more people of color and of diverse origins into franchise. These are the types of things that we get really excited about. It is not particularly that this partner spoke at this conference, that is standard. What we are seeing is much more complex opportunities and issues, and much more partnering with the law firms we serve so that we are thinking about the ideas well before they come to fruition.
Kush Cheema: As an external agency what advice would you have for someone who is locked in the law firm world in an internal position?
Gina Rubel: Learn to speak the legal language. Whenever you can use an analogy that a lawyer will understand, if you can liken what your needs are from them to something that they understand you will cut the conversation so much shorter. For example, if you are trying to explain why you are using certain messaging, talk to them about speaking to a judge or a jury. That is what we learned in law school, we learned how to communicate a message to a particular target audience, so bring it back to that common denominator that they understand. So, in that way, it is what has made my career successful because I understand that space of being a lawyer. And then ask them, how can I help you so that you can spend less time? They are the two key things that will make any in-house relationship more successful with the lawyers you serve.
Kush Cheema: Even externally sometimes, in a conversation with a lawyer, the first five minutes are a bit of a proving exercise. I’m not going to waffle on something that is kind of parallel to what I need, they want to be, especially litigators, which I love speaking to litigators for this, is that you just get straight down to the bare bones. And if it works, it works very well.
Gina Rubel: It is funny you should say that because as a woman lawyer, CEO, I still will have certain classified individuals or non-classified individuals say things, “What qualifies you to do what you do?” And I just want to say, just go look at my website or my LinkedIn profile, because we should be so much further than that. But that is true, that’s the industry. I guess the third piece of advice would be to have confidence in yourself.
When you approach a lawyer, we were trained to look for insecurities, right? We were brainwashed in law school; we were trained to look for that. So go at it with confidence, square your shoulders, stand up, straight, speak directly, look people in the eyes. All those things that we teach our children in growing up, they are such important traits in this, and every professional industry frankly, but I find it immensely important in the legal industry.
Kush, with all of that I can’t thank you enough. I’m going to get to meet you in-person in Hollywood, Florida next week at the Legal Marketing Association’s National Conference (#LMA21) – that’s exciting.
For additional conversations about law firm marketing and innovation, check out Furia Rubel’s Law Firm Marketing Podcasts.
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