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Significant increase in perception that law firms pad their bills – methodological questions

A year ago I wrote about a Corporate Counsel survey (See my post of July 16, 2005 on law firm and law department relations.). This year the renamed monthly, InsideCounsel July 2006 at 52, repeated a question from 2005: “Most law firms pad their bills.” In 2005 36% of the respondents agreed that most law firms pad their bills, 37% disagreed, and 28% were neutral. This year, 42% agreed (an increase of 16% over 2005’s results) and 33% disagreed (an 11% drop), with 24% neutral.

Set aside the ambiguity of “most” and what level and frequency of inflated bills creates a “pad.” Just because the lawyer who reviews a bill knocks something off the bill does not mean that the law firm improperly stuffed it. Could methodological influences account for some or all of the swing toward “agreed” and its condemnation of wide-spread law firm greed? Or, have perceptions drastically soured?

Last year’s survey had 295 law department respondents whereas this years had 407, of which about 200 were general counsel. Let’s not dwell on what is probably a very low response rate (See my posts of April 8, 2005 about employee satisfaction surveys and response rates and Nov. 24, 2005 about client satisfaction survey rates.). Hence, about a third more responded, but what difference that makes, other than giving the 2006 results even more representativeness, I can’t tell. We also can’t tell how many lawyers replied to both surveys. The less the overlap, the more the shift toward suspicion of padding has credibility. Another subject of speculation is the possibility that last year’s survey results raised the consciousness of in-house counsel and that alone bumped up the percentages of agreed to greed.

Methodology may bore some readers, but if we are going to act on metrics, let’s habitually probe them for accuracy. Agreeing with myself, we could probe whether the order and format of questions remained similar. If the 2006 survey had a question before this one implying lower ethical standards of law firms, would there be some spillover to the next question?

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