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Is it an honor just to make the list?

U.S. News & World Report’s Best Law Firms list is out, and with the way it took shape, it got me wondering: Is it better to make the list but land in the third tier, or not make it at all?

The much-anticipated rankings break down the top firms by 81 practice areas, but instead of numerically ranking them, U.S. News tiered firms nationally and in metropolitan areas. Potential clients can search for a firm based on location and practice area.

The tiered structure makes the list much more inclusive than a typical top 100 list ever could, and it allows firms that land in the top tier to call themselves just that — tops at what they do, rather than, say, a quarter of the way down the list.

Of the 8,782 firms that made the list, Maryland had 152 representatives ranked in either metropolitan Baltimore or Washington. It’s obvious that making the list means clients, lawyers, marketing officers and recruiting officers thought highly of those ranked, but landing in the second or third tier in a region almost seems like a knock on the firm.

After all, as Above the Law aptly put it, anything but top tier could hurt a firm:

You think that a corporate GC wants to sit in front of his board and argue that they should give their bet-the-company matter to a firm that U.S. News ranks as “second tier”?

The rankings could disappear from most clients’ minds — as one lawyer told me, no corporation is looking at a “best” list to pick a lawyer, it’s about relationships and referrals — or, they could catch on.  If they take on any of the cache of the law school rankings, look out.