Recently, I was talking to the managing partner of a top, global law firm about our new Career Center, and mentioned that Above the Law readers would be filling out surveys to rate their firms. I mistakenly gave him the impression that somehow the firm would have to be involved in distributing and collecting the surveys (they are not). When he thought that I was asking him for that, his eyes turned a demon shade of red, his hair stood on end, and he bellowed, “Not another survey,” as the earth quaked.
I might be exaggerating slightly, but you get the point. Law firms are inundated with surveys to fill out. Am Law this, Vault that. Super Duper Lawyers of Jurisprudential Awesomeness. Most of the information we have about law firms come from self-reported sources.
Of course, law school deans have taught us a thing or two about relying on self-reported data. Some of the rules can be bent, others broken. Considering the fact that the American Bar Association can’t even make sure that its member institutions tell it the truth, you can best believe that some Biglaw firms have become very skilled at massaging the surveys that they do get.
They don’t lie, but firms can be very tricksy….
There are some tricks that are so standard that it’s kind of like PEDs in cycling… everybody was probably doing it, so I’m assuming the playing field was actually kinda level. Things like sending out the Am Law midlevel survey after bonuses hit bank accounts are simple enough.
Some firms get more shady. We’ve heard stories about firms sending out Vault surveys to only the associates who received bonuses, or only the associates who received above average bonuses.
This week, we received a story from a tipster who used to work in Biglaw and saw how his firm blatantly gamed the summer associates survey we mentioned yesterday. We’ll keep the firm anonymous because our tipster left a couple of years ago, and so we don’t know if this reflects the firm’s current practice. By which I mean I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the firm still does this, but I bet a lot of firms operate this way so it’s probably unfair to call out any one shop:
I was a member of the summer class of 2009 at [PED, LLP], where the partner heading up the Summer Program, [Mark McGwire], held a meeting to instruct summers to complete the AmLaw survey, and also to coach us to rate PED a 4 (on a scale of 5), if we found them average, and a 5 if we found them above average. This grade inflation was necessary, McGwire contended, because the median law firm ends up with a score above 3.
Giving surveys exclusively to the Kool-Aid drinkers is one thing, but proactively telling people how to fill them out and how to scale the firm seems beyond the pale. At that point, why don’t firms just fill out the surveys themselves?
With people terrified about not getting an offer or not being able to hang onto their jobs, there is even more pressure on associates to “self-report” only the most positive and trumped up aspects of firm life.
Not that I really blame the firms for this kind of spin-doctoring. Firms are private businesses that pay their people what could certainly be called a “living wage.” It’d be nice if they always told the truth or always let their people tell the truth, but if we’re going to ask them to self-report their “happiness,” we can’t be surprised if they try to massage it a little.
Instead, I think stories like this just remind us to have a healthy bit of skepticism when it comes to law firm surveys.
What other kinds of shady tactics have you witnessed law firms roll out when it’s time to take the surveys? Let us know in the comments or in tips, and maybe we’ll run a contest to crown the sneakiest law firm in the land.
Earlier: The Am Law Midlevel Survey Is Out, and Associates Are Happy for the First Time in Years
Ranking 2012′s Summer Associate Programs: Spare Us the Wining and Dining, We’re Too Terrified to Have Fun