The Super Origin of Super Lawyers

It all started with an irreverent Minnesota legal magazine

By Adam Wahlberg

Photography by Larry Marcus

In 1990, Bill White was in his first year running Minnesota Law & Politics, a monthly magazine known for its off-beat covers, irreverent tone and cheeky slogan ("Only Our Name Is Boring"), when he held a meeting with a local freelance writer. Steve Kaplan was there to pitch a profile on perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen. The two immediately bonded, and Kaplan soon joined the magazine as editor in chief.

bill-white_2.jpgIt was a dynamic pairing of opposites. Both men were raised on Russell Avenue in Minneapolis, and in retail clothing environments (Hubert White menswear and Kaplan Brothers workwear, respectively), but politically White tilted right and Kaplan leaned left. White, who practiced law before becoming a publisher, was the charismatic face of the publication: tall and amiable, with wavy brown hair. Kaplan, short and blunt, was renowned for reading eight newspapers a day, giving local freelancers their first byline, and having zero sense of traffic direction. Yet the two men always agreed on what would make a great magazine.

"Our goal was a combination of gravity and levity," White says.

"We knew you could have a smart magazine for a smart audience that also didn't take itself too seriously," Kaplan adds. "We never had to discuss the mission of the magazine. It was always just obvious to us."

An early cover sent up the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with a male lawyer posing provocatively in a swimming pool in a three-piece suit. Another cover satirized the slow pace of law-firm diversity with five confused-looking white men under the headline "Celebrating Diversity."

Out of that madcap environment, Super Lawyers was born.

In 1991, ruminating on all the city-magazine guides for "best restaurants" and "best doctors," White thought, "Why couldn't we do one for lawyers?" That first list appeared in the magazine's August edition. Since the concept of "supermodels" was breaking at the time, White, with a wink, called his list "Super Lawyers."

It became their best-selling issue-in terms of ad revenue-that year and every year. "If we were in retail, August was considered our holiday season," says White. "It paid for the rest."

In 1996, Vance Opperman, a Twin Cities publisher who owned MSP Communications, bought L&P and expanded it into Washington state. One day, looking across the floor at MSP Communications, White had a brainstorm. What if Minnesota Law & Politics gave the Super Lawyers list to sister publications Mpls.St. Paul and Twin Cities Business to run in their magazines, and they split the sales? It worked. Better than he could have imagined.

Texas Monthly had seen the list in Mpls.St. Paul Magazine and wondered if Super Lawyers could do the same in Texas. It was decided to not only develop a list for Texas Monthly but also run it in a stand-alone magazine, along with articles featuring top listees.

steve-kaplan_4.jpg"We wanted to give validation to our expansion into the market and not just deliver a list," says Kaplan. "We wanted to publish a magazine that told good stories, and which would be welcome on lawyers' desks year after year."

Expectations were modest, but the response was overwhelming. City magazines around the country suddenly wanted to partner up, and Super Lawyers began annual mags in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia and Southern California.

Throughout the expansion, White and Cindy Larson, the director of research, continued to refine the selection process. White wrote 17 criteria for what defines a lawyer who makes the cut, including scholarly writings, leadership positions and community engagement. They weighted votes from outside the firm heavier than those from inside the firm. They sent surveys to managing partners and initiated a blue-ribbon panel, in which top performers gave input on the quality of nominees. The process was so sophisticated, they successfully patented it.

Today, Super Lawyers, which was bought by Thomson Reuters in February 2010, employs 70 people across its research, production, data, editorial, online and marketing departments.

The research team handles more than a quarter million nominations and more than 200,000 blue-ribbon panel evaluations annually. The list is seen in nearly 100 magazines across the country, with a total readership of more than 24 million.

For those who remember the early days, it's all a bit surreal.

"When we first started expanding, I had the entire schedule on the front and back of one sheet of paper," says Larson, the current publisher of Super Lawyers. "Sometimes I sit back and wonder, 'Did this really happen?'"

Sidebar: Super Lawyers Through The Years

· 1990: Minnesota Law & Politics publishes its first issue

· 1991: Minnesota Law & Politics publishes its first Super Lawyers edition

· 1996: Vance Opperman buys Minnesota Law & Politics

· 1998: Super Lawyers list appears in Mpls.St. Paul and Twin Cities Business

· 2003: Super Lawyers appears in Texas Monthly

· 2010: Thomson Reuters buys Super Lawyers