It’s become almost routine for companies to claim to be tech-first organizations. But at Best Lawyers, a publishing and research organization, we don’t merely make that claim. Instead, we simply point to the fact that our CEO is a software engineer.

But it wasn’t always that way.

It all began for us back in pre-digital 1983, when we published our first book, The Best Lawyers in America®, a traditional hard-bound listing of thousands of lawyers in the United States who had been judged by their peers to be among the best in their profession.

“The initial edition was literally written by hand, from information captured through phone calls,” says Senior Research Manager Kristen Greer. Eventually her predecessors in the research department upgraded to index cards. By the time she joined the company 13 years ago, the research system had been further upgraded, using emails and spreadsheets to gather nominations and votes, but it was still a manual process.

Over the succeeding decades, our reputation for producing the best peer-reviewed research in the legal profession continued to blossom. That research also created a foundation for related editorial coverage of the industry, journalism that would shine a spotlight on the best in our profession and help lawyers think more deeply about their work.

Meteoric Rise of a CEO

But as the digital age took hold, it became clear that the real opportunities for growth were in the digital transformation of our business.

Which is where Phillip Greer entered the picture.

Our current CEO’s 16-year journey with Best Lawyers closely follows the contours of our progression from an analogue to a predominately digital organization. Phillip joined the company in 2005 as a software engineer, tasked with converting many of the processes that we were then performing in analogue fashion—such as phone/mail-in/fax balloting—and digitizing them.

“I thought this would be just a steppingstone in my software career, but it was such a cool opportunity, helping a giant industry recognize that there was a major shift on the horizon, and we could be at the forefront of it,” Phillip recalls. “The owners at the time were quite entrepreneurial and let me keep building the systems.”

He built a custom content management system and then an entirely new website that could push us into the next few years. “We took our balloting system and digitized it, so lawyers could have the option beginning in 2006 to do online balloting,” he says.

Lawyers can now vote for their peers on their smartphones, at any time of day from anywhere around the world. These digital tools “have opened a whole new world for us,” says Kristen. “It has made the process less disruptive for lawyers. This way we can respect the billable hours that our clients live under.”

Phillip (who is not related to Kristen) went from Lead Software Engineer to Director of IT. He later became Chief Operating Officer, President and now CEO.

With Phillip’s digital foundation now woven through our DNA, a steady stream of upgrades and innovations have continued under our current IT director, Larry Meadows. Best Lawyers now electronically sends out about a million ballots each year and our systems currently house about 15 million data points on the industry, which provides a vast storehouse of business intelligence on the legal sector.

Now, Phillip says proudly, “we are a software company that is here to assist the research division.”

Accelerating the Drive Toward Digital

This year, we are transitioning from The Best Lawyers in America book to offer representation of all listed lawyers in our custom publications and partnerships with newspapers and magazines across the country. Today, we produce more than 15 print magazines a year, including 11 regional publications in North America, as well as two business editions in print. Our global business edition includes listings from approximately three dozen countries. We partner with around 20 newspapers and magazines in the United States to bring even more coverage of our lists to readers.

At the same time, as part of our accelerating transition to digital platforms, we currently produce five digital editions—one for Australia, another covering the American Midwest, and three that focus on particular practice areas that include lawyer listings from across the U.S. Crucially, all our print articles are also available free of charge online, giving consumers greater access than ever to our carefully peer-reviewed listing of the best lawyers. It also gives advertisers far greater exposure to their message.

In recent years, Larry Meadows has focused on adding additional best practices to our software stack, converting it almost entirely to the cloud, better leveraging business intelligence and making the technology more scalable so as to better facilitate our continued growth. Says Larry: “We’re building our systems to handle the most traffic possible and to ensure that our digital sites are lightning fast.”

Phillip Greer says, “It’s been exciting to see how so many traditionally print-centric firms are finally making the switch to digital, and we’re helping them with their marketing, their web presence, search engine optimization and social media. We can do promotional campaigns for them through Facebook, LinkedIn and the Chicago Tribune network.” But he also notes that some senior attorneys continue to prefer print as their primary marketing vehicle.

“We tell them, ‘We know your marketing has traditionally been print, and for the lawyers who are still not comfortable moving from print to digital, we’ll still support them. We’ll be ready when they’re ready.’ The goal is always, what’s the end goal for you and your firm, what’s the best marketing vehicle? Whatever works best for you is what we will help provide.”

 

John Ettorre is an Emmy-award-winning writer, based in Cleveland. His work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.