Is it Really an Award if you Have to Pay for It?
Getting awards is great. It makes you feel good about all your hard work. You can put them up on your website to showcase your awesomeness. You can tell all your colleagues and add them to your resume. But should you have to pay for an award?
Some awards that are common for law firms are:
- Best Litigators who Litigate Lawsuits in Louisiana (BLLLL) (/sarcasm)
- Super Lawyers
- Avvo and its ratings
- Legal Elite
- Law Dragon
- Million Dollar Advocates
- Lawyer Legion
- National Trial Lawyers
- America’s Top 100
- Law 360
There are also other badges you can put on your site too from various bar organizations, associations, journals, and other legal groups:
- American Association for Justice
- American Board of Trial Advocates
- Board Certifications from your state or local bars (ex: Florida Bar, Texas Board)
- Bar Associations (city, county, practice type, or state)
- Associations (ex: Florida Justice Association)
- Business Journals
- International Society of Barristers
- ALFA International
- …even the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA)
There is also a list of good awards to win, though these are much, much harder to achieve.
Are Legal Awards Worth Anything? Yes? Probably?
Many websites indicate that badges are proven to increase trust and conversions. However, I am skeptical of most of those studies’ methodology, and many articles seem to cite the same studies over and over (one from Blue Fountain Media and one from Statistica).
Badges and awards are also worthy of PR. You can send out a notice or email to clients. You can also update your resume and brag to your colleagues.
So overall, most of these awards are great to receive. You win the award; they send you some information about the award. You can use the award as you see fit since you won the award.
Some of the organizations may charge a fee to be a member or a fee to be reviewed. You have to make the judgment call on whether it is worth it to be a member or reviewed. Some may optionally ask you to buy some licensed plaques and schwag, which you can often decline.
But this article is really not about debating whether a badge is good/bad to have. On the contrary, I believe badges can help to some degree. So let’s go with conventional wisdom and say badges help website trust and conversion. Some awards, though, are clearly just out to grab money via a logo licensing fee.
Best Lawyers: Trademark License Fee
Best Lawyers, US News Best Law Firms, and Best Law Firms in America all charge fees to use their badges. They are not to be confused with Best Litigators who Litigate Lawsuits in Louisiana, a small award site for lawyers in the great state of Louisiana. If they existed, they would not charge a fee (/sarcasm).
If you don’t pay, they send out automatic demand letters to those attorneys who win their award and place it on their website. What type of letter? Glad you asked.
The Polite Trademark Demand Letter
The common demand letter that Best Lawyers is sending out to law firms who use the badge is something similar to:
I am touching base on my email below, the Best Lawyers logo and badge is still visible on your website. You will need to purchase the current badge edition if the firm wishes to continue using it.
To purchase please visit your online store or I can prepare an invoice for remittance. Please have your marketing team remove the unauthorized versions from your website.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
T: [phone redacted] | F: [fax redacted]
Best Lawyers links the email to the logo and badge store, where you can pay for a logo for the low, low price of $650 to $775. Note that the direct link may not show all the options, so here is a nice screenshot.
Even from the description under each logo, it is unclear if they are charging a yearly license, unlimited license, or a fee every time you win. You are also left wondering if you buy it in one shape/size, do you have to buy each one?
Is this Legit? Can the logo be trademarked?
Yes, Best Lawyers owns a trademark in their name. You can search it here at the USPTO (sorry, AFAIK, USPTO does not allow for direct linking to trademarks). So yes, they can control the trademark to some extent.
There is an argument that their marks are generic/descriptive and not afforded trademark protection. I mean, it is “Best Lawyers,” and both terms are pretty generic on the trademark scale.
You could claim I am the best lawyer and be fine (although your bar association may not like that). You probably would get a cease and desist letter if you started to capitalize those terms, though, as “Best Lawyers.”
But after ten years of registration, they have probably hit incontestable status, and let’s assume they have a trademark in the name. Are there any other options? What about fair use? Can you simply use the trademark under that exception?
Is it Fair Use to Display an Award?
You could make a case that you may be able to use their logo without their consent based on standard exceptions to trademark rules. These exceptions include fair use, comparative advertising, and parody, to name a few.
For instance, you could probably just state, “I won the Best Lawyers award in 2019 to 2021,” and would probably be fine. That is a fact. Facts really can’t be trademarked. They gave you the award. You may not be able to use the logo, though, unless you want to fight it out in court as the logo is trademarked. Though, again, you could write a creative sentence such as:
I won the Best Lawyers award from 2019 to 2021, and here is their cool logo to show proof:
That might even pass muster, as again you are stating the fact.
Moral Fair Use for Gifts and Awards?
I don’t believe there is an exception to the fair use clause for gifts, but maybe there should be.
So let’s call this the “gift” exception.
I would argue that it’s fair to “use” a logo given to you as an award. For example, if someone gives me a thank-you award at school or work, they can’t tell me not to put it in public view. I can take a picture of it and put it on social media. I can make a blog post out of it, announcing the award. I could probably even put it on a website.
Similarly, if someone gives me an award for coaching a kid’s soccer team, they can’t later demand that I buy the FC Fort Lauderdale badge for the team. Not only is it fair use, but it also seems to be a smack in the face after you won the award.
Overall, it seems odd that an organization that gives out reviews would suddenly want to start charging the law firms to win their awards and send out demand letters.
Should you pay for a license?
Either way, Best Lawyers is licensing their logo for relatively high fees for a small law firm. They also seem to be trying to backdate the logo fees for any award won. I have been in legal marketing for 20 years now, and this is the first time I have seen a demand letter from them. Perhaps their new private equity company Levine Leichtman Capital Partners acquired them and wanted to monetize further to increase revenue. Unfortunately, you may have to pay the fee if you want to use the logo, as litigating this would probably not be cost-effective.
But … Awards Should Not Be a Money Grab
Is it really an award if you can’t use the badge at all unless you pay a fee?
Imagine if the Oscars required Matt Damon to pay for his Best Actor role in Team America?
Imagine if Marie Curie had to pay to use the rights to her Nobel Prize?
Something is just off when you win an award and then have to pay to use the award. It likely means the award is probably not legit and a pure money grab.
Let us know what you think?