David and Jeff Stowman, a father-and-son law practice in Detroit Lakes, Minn., enjoy their "Super Lawyer" status and even promote it with their limited advertising budget. But they're not sure what it means.

Barbara Brown, the marketing manager for the Minneapolis firm of Meagher & Geer, has 19 of her firm's attorneys on the 2008 Super Lawyer list, although she doubts that the designation draws many clients.

Regardless, the annual product of Minnesota Law & Politics magazine is hugely popular, enjoys a national presence and rakes in beaucoup advertising revenue.

That's why a lot of eyes are on the New Jersey Supreme Court, where the ranking of attorneys and advertising of that rank or designation is under challenge. A court-appointed committee on attorney advertising in New Jersey two years ago determined that it was unethical for attorneys to tout or even list a Super Lawyer rating because it implied they are "superior to their colleagues."

But a special master who reviewed the issue for the court said last month that it is OK for attorneys to tell consumers that they have Super Lawyer status or high rankings from other rating-resources, such as "Best Lawyers in America."

"It is evident that the 21st Century consumer is more sophisticated than ever and actively seeks information prior to making purchase choices, including the selection of legal representation," retired Judge Robert Fall wrote in his report.

"This is good news for consumers and attorneys," said Bill White, publisher of Minneapolis-based Law & Politics. "This recognizes that consumers are best served when they are given more, not less information about lawyers."

The New Jersey high court has given parties in the advertising dispute until Sept. 15 to file their responses to the special master's report and then will hear arguments before making a ruling.

A ruling against lawyer advertising would not be a fatal blow to Law & Politics since the question has not been an issue in most states where the magazine distributes its Super Lawyer lists. Still, White is concerned.

"There are some regulators in other states who yearn for the clubby old days when lawyers didn't have to compete in the free marketplace like other businesses," White said.

First Amendment law professor Raleigh Levine, believes the New Jersey court eventually will rule in favor of lawyers who want to advertise their Super Lawyer designation.

"They [Law & Politics] do peer reviews and that is a verifiable fact," said Levine, who teaches at William Mitchell College of Law. "The Supreme Court has always been wary of restricting free speech on the grounds that people are too stupid to understand what something means."

Law & Politics published its first Super Lawyer issue in 1991 and now has a presence in all 50 states. It distributes localized Super Lawyer lists with such media mainstays as the New York Times Sunday Magazine and the respected regional magazine, Texas Monthly.

Owned by Vance Opperman's Key Professional Media Inc., Law & Politics has grown from a staff of eight to 75 employees who help compile the Super Lawyer lists and vet the candidates for the list on a number of categories including verdicts, settlements, transactions, honors and awards, experience, scholarly work, and professional and community service.

The magazine stresses that the selection process is "independent of advertising or any other payments."

Striking oil

But that's not to say that capitalism is not a factor in the Super Lawyer financial model. It is, very much so.

In 2003, Law & Politics for the first time took the Super Lawyer concept outside of Minnesota -- to Texas.

"We said, 'We've hit oil,'" White recalled. "That one issue in Texas generated more revenue than the total revenue of Law & Politics in Minnesota and [sister publication] Washington for an entire year. "We said, We've got to expand before others figure this out.'"

Law & Politics won't disclose revenue from the Super Lawyer issues it produces around the country. But if the Minnesota edition is any indicator, the financial impact is significant.

The Super Lawyer issue, out this month, is twice the size of the magazine's other five issues printed during the year. Law & Politics also distributes the list with Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business.

Lawyers are informed of Super Lawyer status early in the year after their qualifications have been reviewed. Then they are offered an opportunity to advertise their selection in the form of a brief biography, which they or their firm writes, and a photo.

This year's issue contains 250 biographies and photos of Super Lawyers at a charge of $995 to $1,995 a pop to run in all three magazines. That's a minimum of nearly $250,000 up to $500,000 for the issue.

And then there's display advertising by individual law firms. The Stowmans paid $1,200 for their quarter-page ad; Brown's Meagher & Geer paid $4,000 for a three-quarter page ad.

Believers ... and critics

Is it worth it? That's up for some debate.

"There's a certain prestige that you get from it," said David Stowman. "Beyond that, I'm not sure.''

Jeff Stowman said their personal injury practice thrives on referrals and Super Lawyer status "makes an impression on other attorneys as well."

In Brown's view, a firm can't afford to not be represented on the Super Lawyer list.

"I know our colleagues read it and if you're not there, your absence is noted," Brown said. "I'd be hard-pressed to tell you one piece of business that came to us because of being a Super Lawyer, but we do it anyway."

Among the Super Lawyers detractors is Ron Rosenbaum, a St. Paul attorney who became a talk-radio host in 1998 when he was named a Super Lawyer for the first time.

"I didn't become a better lawyer in 1998 than I was in 1997," Rosenbaum said. "It seemed the less I practiced law, the better lawyer I became. I never understood that. Those that slog in the trenches and represent poor people are never on that list."

White is familiar with such criticisms and acknowledges that the selection process has become much more sophisticated in recent years.

"In the beginning, it was a simple poll. Now we look at 17 to 18 factors," White said. "It's a great way to get recognized. Lawyers are always looking for an edge."

One of the newest Super Lawyers' competitors is a listing-and-ranking service called Avvo. So far Avvo has records on lawyers in 20 states and the District of Columbia. It just entered the Minnesota market.

Avvo provides Internet-available attorney profiles, ratings, client reviews and peer reviews.

Founder Mark Britton, a former senior executive for the Internet-based travel agency Expedia, said he is aiming for a "Consumer Reports" style of checklist that eventually will be supported by legal advertising.

"There's a tremendous amount of money being spent in the legal marketplace to interact with one another," Britton said. "Not every lawyer can be super or the best. You have splashy ads that tell you how great individual lawyers are. We want to empower consumers to handle that legal information with confidence."

Said White: "Publishers are free to review and rank hospitals, colleges, mutual funds, you name it. We ought to be able to do the same with lawyers."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269