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Were general counsel genuine when they answered survey questions about outsourcing?

The report just issued by Eversheds, “Law firm of the 21st century: The clients’ revolution,” is based on questions asked of 130 general counsel. One finding regarding the post-recession world suggests a vigorous uptake of outsourcing. “Just over a third (38%) of General Counsel were actively implementing or considering outsourcing low-level work to low-cost jurisdictions and a further 29% were receptive to the idea of outsourcing provided they had suitable work.”

It is not possible to judge this claim. The report says nothing about the general counsel in the survey group – size of department, industry, location of legal department, clients of Eversheds or not, which handicaps how much we can interpret of this quote. Even if we knew the demographics, we can’t parse out “implementers” from “considerers.” Even if we could, we don’t know the scale or specifics of those who said they had implemented outsourcing. If a law department instructs a firm that uses document reviewers in India, does that count as “implemented”?

My header and methodological point, however, goes to the well-known weakness that people often answer surveys in a way that may or may not be accurate but makes them feel good about themselves. No self-respecting general counsel of a global company would ever admit to a survey that “I will never, ever, ship my precious legal work to overseas coolies.” Instead, they will all check off that they are “considering” this new-fangled, much publicized (but ill-advised) management trick. Likewise on surveys, they are “considering” diversity, telecommuting, as well as environmental actions and heightened pro bono and corporate social responsibility and gay/lesbian/transgender equality and removal of land mines, and cleft palates in Africa and oil spills in the Gulf ….

My point is not that general counsel are insensitive to any of these pressing concerns; my point is that answers to survey questions permit them to feel good about themselves. Only if the questions press for specifics and metrics can we more confidently trust that a finding shows tangible action rather than self-congratulatory statements.