Why Legal Awards Don’t Interest Me

Don’t get me wrong. I think legal awards serve a purpose. To need an extrinsic indicator of success or recognition for their self-esteem is common. Legal awards serve this need. It gives us something to achieve or acquire depending on the legal award one signs up for. It inspires us to do our best, so we are acknowledged as such.

To be fair, it is difficult to be driven entirely by the non-recognition of intrinsic success; having that reward made tangible and dangled before us is a far easier proposition to work towards.

Legal awards are an attempt at social proofing. A bunch of people agree someone should get an award for his work or contribution to an area of knowledge. The inference is that he is good at what he does. But the reality is more complicated and nuanced.

It is an unspoken thing that legal awards are a helpful cover for marketing or ‘business development’ as they like to call it. Every time there is a nomination or an award, it presents an opportunity to blare that fact out with standardized messages with the appropriate humble brag across a variety of social media accounts.

Legal awards do not interest me for various esoteric reasons.

Firstly, it is easy for an award to look dated. The typical award is an annual affair where some are awarded law firm, lawyer or whatever of the year. If, for example, my firm won law firm of the year for 2013 and I keep displaying that award in 2023, my 2013 award looks outdated.

It gives the impression we hit our peak back in 2013 and after 10 years of no such awards, we are a pale shadow of our former self. If our firm were so great, we should have won it consecutively. Every year.

But that’s assuming the legal award is awarded on the basis of competency. But if we win the legal award every consecutive year, that will demotivate other firms to bother participating in the award. But if everyone is given an opportunity to win it, the award is not being honest in its selection. Legal awards must strike that fine balance, but that fine balance detracts from the genuineness and hence value of the award.

Second, if I turn out to be such a legal award winner and I need this reflected on my stationary, social media and constantly inform people about it. If not, what is the point of getting one? An award is something for us to share with family, friends and above all, strangers. Now if I keep picking up legal awards on a yearly basis, I have to keep updating my stationary each time I am awarded something and notifying everyone about it when the time comes. That’s time, design effort and cost we have to spend on. I would rather spend all that on the work, with a client or enjoying myself in my colleague’s company.

Third, legal award categories are ambiguous and nebulous. What does it mean to be the ‘Best Litigation or Corporate Lawyer of the Year?’ Did they do the most cases or deals? Were they most highly rated by their clients? Did they do the biggest cases or deals? What is an ‘Arbitration law firm of the year?’ What are the criteria by which legal award recipients are judged by? What are the various weights of the various criteria?

Once we start digging deeper, we find difficulties with such ‘best of’ awards. For example, if we keep it real, we know there is no such thing as ‘best’. Legal relationships although professional are personal if not intimate as well. Best implies an absoluteness of quality for all situations, and there is no such thing. There is no ‘best’ when it comes to people and human relationships. There are only qualities such as appropriate, optimal or suitable. It is like asking someone what the best food is to eat.

Fourth, aside from the categories being meaningless, these legal awards do not promote the right values. When it comes down to it, it is all about money. Nothing about ethics, humaneness, emotional intelligence and good values. Instead of ‘Dealmaker of the Year’, ‘Rising Star for 2023’, ‘Equity Market Deal of the Year’, why not awards like, ‘Best Law Firm to Work In for 202X’, ‘Ethical Lawyer of the Year’, ‘Best Contribution to the Legal Profession’, ‘Most Responsive Lawyer of the Year’, ‘Nicest and Empathetic Legal Firm Management of the Year’, ‘Mentor of the Year’, if we need to have them?

But these categories are subjective in nature; they cannot be quantified in money, for example. That makes it harder to award anyone because we all have different ideas of what that means. But that is the reality. What many of these award-winners don’t mention is the misery their associates or their families are put through for these legal baubles of recognition.

Maybe if awards were more positive and humane in the values they promote (‘Office with Nicest Mural of the Year’), I would consider participating. But I have no interest in these purely commercial-driven and ego-inflating kind of awards.

Finally, I also have my own idea of a legal award: it is when my clients pay us or extend genuine thanks for the advice or representation. When the fees hit our firm account or I hear the genuineness of their thanks, preferably both, I feel like a winner and that’s all the legal award validation I need to keep going and stay in practice. That we did our best for our client, and they know it, is a reward if not an award in itself.

The reward of self-satisfaction for doing our job done in accordance with our professional ethics, personal morality and client’s interest is all the award we should need. That’s how it was a long, long time ago – legal professionals got on with their jobs with as little fanfare as possible. I personally would welcome a return to such an environment especially in this day and age.

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