Lawyer awards have become a standard part of the legal landscape over the last decade. There are awards and exclusive associations for every practice area imaginable, and every legal publication seems to have its own slate of annual awards highlighting trailblazers and rising stars. Even if you’re skeptical of these accolades, a significant percentage of clients find award-winning lawyers to be more authoritative. For them, the more plaques on their lawyer’s wall, the better.
Lawyer awards might be a modern phenomenon in the legal industry, but did you know they were born out of Hollywood’s Golden Age? Hollywood studio heads came up with the brilliant publicity stunt of creating awards to give to their stars. Although many of the actors and actresses who have won awards over the years were certainly deserving of the recognition, the original concept was less about honoring artists and more about fueling the Hollywood publicity machine—and it worked.
The savvy marketer who first came up with awards for lawyers was using the same playbook as those Old Hollywood executives, whether they knew it or not. In ELM partner Jay Jessup’s book “Fame 101: Powerful Personal Branding & Publicity for Amazing Success,” he delves into the thought process behind these awards:
“Television audiences would eat it up, and every studio could trot out their talent with a show that started on the Red Carpet where studio wares, the actors themselves, would be delivered by limousines, each with just the right companion. Publicity people covered pre-parties, arrivals, gowns, couples, countless awards, exits, post-parties, and losers and the winners alike. The result of this publicity coup – being nominated for an award or winning one, caused the value of the studios’ ultimate product, films, to skyrocket.”
We all know this strategy worked. The Academy Awards have been televised since 1953, and awards season now also includes the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Daytime, and Primetime Emmys, and countless other ceremonies for every facet of entertainment.
This system became so successful because those original studio heads understood the three things that make awards valuable.
First and foremost, winning an award creates credibility and prestige. Take Meryl Streep. Everyone is in agreement that she’s one of the most—if not the most—esteemed and skilled actresses in Hollywood. Part of that perception certainly comes from her natural talent and choice in roles, but it’s no coincidence that she’s won three Oscars and has been nominated a record 21 times.
A consensus of Hollywood experts has decided she’s the best, and even if she’s not your favorite actress, you have to agree. Why else would she have been recognized so many times over the years? Her wins and nominations have created the perception that she is an expert actress.
In addition to prestige, awards generate massive media coverage. In the weeks leading up to awards season, dozens of commentators spend hours predicting who will win, what they’ll wear, and who they’ll show up with. Winners (and even high-profile nominees) can leverage their media attention into a campaign that lasts much longer than awards season.
Before and after the ceremony, they can spin their nomination into morning show appearances, interviews, speaking engagements, and other media coverage that earns them the adoration of fans. A best actor or actress winner who wears a couture outfit or gives a memorable speech can even garner so much publicity that it solidifies their place in history, like Sally Field and her “You really like me!” speech.
The final and perhaps most important thing Hollywood executives realized about awards is that they made the value of their films go up. If they cast an award-winning actor, the buzz for the movie grew. If that buzz was positive and critics predicted a win, more people saw the film. And if that film did win, the director, producer, and cast received a reputation boost they carried with them to their next project. A film with an award-winning cast and crew generates more dollars because people want to spend their money on the best they can see, experience, and buy.
Although there aren’t televised awards for lawyers (yet), lawyer awards work exactly the same way. Winning an award gives a lawyer an aura of credibility and authority over their practice area and their competitors. Lawyer awards can be leveraged to earn media coverage, TV commentator slots, and book deals, stretching the award’s value far beyond its original impact. And award-winning lawyers get more clients and earn more money. The perceived value of their services goes up, which means people are willing to pay more to hire them.
Awards ceremonies are a bit of Hollywood genius that has made its way into the legal world. Those early Hollywood executives came up with marketing brilliance, and any lawyer who wants to heighten their profile should study their strategies.