Nov/Dec 2001

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The Science of Useful Research: Crafting Law Firm Surveys


Firms of all sizes are conducting research surveys to help serve clients and manage firm business better. Maybe it’s time for your firm to conduct a little research, too. Here’s what you need to know.

For years, law firms have conducted research to support litigation. But over the past decade, more firms have begun to focus on gathering information about their clients, their markets and the firm’s own culture. Any size firm can gain substantially from gathering truthful, clear and relevant data that helps it in the competitive marketplace.

Law firms conduct three basic types of research: client satisfaction surveys, market surveys and in-house surveys. Each has different goals that dictate the structure, format and types of questions asked. However, the major reasons for firms to conduct any of these surveys are simple: building business, competing with other firms and managing the firm better.

Client Satisfaction Surveys

Client satisfaction surveys, sometimes called client audits, are most commonly conducted. They are proprietary and confidential. There are several reasons for their popularity.

First, firms are genuinely motivated to give the best possible service to their clients. Gathering data on the firm’s service track record provides invaluable suggestions for improvement throughout the firm and between the individual lawyer and his or her clients.

Second, client surveys provide strategic information on how the firm can build on its strengths to differentiate and position itself against competition.

Third, firms can use the client survey to learn what types of legal work clients are sending elsewhere, and to which firms. They might also learn what percentage of the total legal work of a particular client the firm is getting. For example, your firm might learn that it is getting only 40 percent of the legal business a corporation is outsourcing. The 60 percent you are not getting is an opportunity for firm growth.

An added benefit of the client satisfaction survey is that your firm can use it, in itself, as a marketing event. Corporate lawyers care that the firm has taken time to ask their opinions. One Altman Weil study found that more than 75 percent of corporate respondents believed that satisfaction surveys "are critical or important for an ongoing relationship." More than 85 percent said that private law firms "should conduct formal surveys regularly to assess their clients’ satisfaction." The importance of surveying corporate lawyers is underscored by their response rate. Bert Russick Sr., a professor of marketing research at the University of Minnesota, reports that a 15 percent response rate for any research project is considered excellent. Yet, in spite of their lack of time and the complexity of law firm questionnaires, corporate lawyers respond at a rate of 25 to 30 percent.

Market Surveys

Corporations have conducted market research studies for decades. Now law firms are following suit as they explore new markets. If, for example, a firm wants to penetrate a particular vertical market, like pharmaceuticals, it can conduct a study of in-house pharmaceutical counsel to determine how they select their law firms, what they look for in a firm, what issues are important to them and how they network. A firm may also conduct research on a geographic market where it plans to open a regional office.

Market surveys can be based on either primary or secondary research. In primary research, your firm would conduct its own original research project. You would work with a legal market research vendor to create and implement the study.

Secondary research is conducted completely by an outside source. Firms purchase the study results from the source, spreading the research costs over the broad base of purchasers. For example, Stephen Brewer, president of Brewer Business Research in Kansas City, conducts market surveys with the legal services decision makers in major cities nationwide. He researches a wide range of companies that have revenues from about $5 million to more than $1 billion.

In-House Surveys

There are two main types of in-house surveys. Employee satisfaction or personnel surveys, from secretary to senior partner, can help a firm build programs to attract and retain staff. This type of survey can cover many areas, including compensation, work hours, training, communication and technical support.

The other type of in-house research is a lawyer survey typically used to gather data on cross-selling among practice groups and regional offices. Marketing dogma has long held that gaining new business from an existing client costs only about 30 percent of establishing business with a new client. It is also a much faster way to build business. The in-house lawyer survey looks at firm culture, including attitudes like intrafirm communication and what binds the firm together as a unit. It can result in many actions that promote overall unity and help firms build interdisciplinary client service teams.

In addition, an in-house partner survey is an excellent opportunity for all partners to voice their opinions on where firm business development should be going—and how best to get there.

How to Get Started: Setting Goals

There are many reasons to undertake a survey project. Your firm may be losing clients to aggressive new firms. An established firm in your city may have gone out of business. You may be watching an old competitor grab a new market while your markets erode. Or you may simply have an uneasy feeling that you could be doing something better, for your clients or for your employees.

Stephen Brewer comments that nearly all businesses conduct research as a "trial situation to learn what the issues are." Law firms should be no exception. Partners must understand that information in a certain area can help your firm identify its strengths and weaknesses as well as business opportunities. The strongest argument on the need for survey data is that the firm will miss new business, perhaps lose current business and start slipping against the competition. Alternatively, you can do nothing and watch what happens against firms that market aggressively.

Be it a client, market or in-house survey, you must set some goals for what issues you hope to learn about. If you hire an outside research company to conduct your survey, the company can help you sharpen those goals and ensure that you cover all the bases.

To provide an idea of what you can achieve, here are sample goals for client satisfaction surveys:

• To identify client perceptions of your firm’s service in each practice area.

• To review client satisfaction with business procedures like billing.

• To examine the effectiveness of your firm’s communication system.

• To get comparative fee and special compensation practices data.

• To find out how your firm is getting new business.

• To find out which firms are your major competitors.

• To obtain demographic information on your clients.

Selecting a Survey Outsource

Your research objective is to get the information you want through clear, honest responses. Creating an accurate, high-quality instrument for this —the questionnaire—involves science. Most law firms, even the largest ones, do not want to carry the overhead of an in-house research department. There are a number of consulting companies in the nation that specialize in law firm research. They can guide your firm with suggestions for questions and the best methods for gathering data. Make sure the company shows you samples of its work and provides references.

You may want to create a request for proposal. The companies bidding on the work can define the techniques to be used and the time requirement (depending on the type of research and the size of the sample to be queried) and give you an estimated price. Remember that slight variations in price are not nearly as important as the quality of the data you receive. The ambiguous, fuzzy data that an inexperienced research group may gather is a waste of money.

Picking the Sample

The samples for surveys of large groups like public opinion polls must be drawn statistically from the total population in a way that makes the results reliable, plus or minus a small margin of error. A sample drawn from the total population must be random to be scientifically reliable.

Law firms don’t have client populations large enough to create a statistically valid sample. This point, however, is moot because the survey results don’t need to be scientific. In fact, your firm may want to draw a "skewed" sample that is a segment of your total client base. The 80/20 Rule applies to most law firms. That is, the firm gets 80 percent of its revenue from 20 percent of its clients. Your firm may want to interview only its top revenue-producing clients, or those in a certain geographic market.

However, don’t make your sample so small that you cannot draw firmwide inferences from it. If your firm has 600 clients and sends out only 100 questionnaires, you can expect about 30 responses. That number is too small to be a basis for generalized conclusions. You should send out at least 400 questionnaires to get a response rate of 120.

Your sample size may be dictated somewhat by the size of your budget and timeline. If your firm has a small client base, a telephone interview survey of select clients may be better. You can ensure that you connect with all the respondents.

Crafting Questions

Once you have defined your information goals and your survey group, it is time to draft targeted questions. The KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) rule applies here: In general, the simpler the survey, the greater the response rate. Your research consultant can advise you on which potential questions to include or throw out. For example, you may want to include questions about clients’ preferred methods of communication, but not ask about their technical platforms.

Bert Russick lists the basic tests a question must pass:

• Is the question really needed? Eliminate any extraneous questions to keep the survey as short as possible.

• Is it clear? Questions must not be ambiguous.

• Is the language easy to understand? Use simple language. One- and two-syllable words are best.

• Can the person answer? You want the decision maker on the issue.

• Is the question in any way leading? The question must not influence the respondent.

• Do you need two questions rather than one?

• Can the respondent make up an answer? Give standardized choices so that you can measure the results.

Quantitative questions. Yes/No questions are the simplest format for quantitative questions. There are also "Likert Scale" type questions (developed at the University of Michigan), which are familiar to most people from standardized tests. This scale lists up to five options from which to choose. For example, a question may ask, "How often does your lawyer respond promptly to your calls?" The answer options are: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Frequently, Always.

Qualitative questions. You may also want to include some open-ended queries among your survey questions to solicit qualitative responses. This is the place for respondents to be spontaneous—and where you will get some of your most valuable and rewarding responses.

Delivering the Survey

Technology has provided new ways to deliver and gather information. Your firm may plan to e-mail questionnaires and ask that the responses be e-mailed back. However, e-mail can be problematic. Some in your target sample may not be in the habit of using it. Others may use it too much and resent your putting non-urgent information into their boxes, especially when an attachment is involved. E-mail can also be easily deleted.

The good old U.S. mail is still the preferred method of delivery, and there are several tips for ensuring that your survey gets to your target and gets read:

• Be sure to include your complete return address on the mailing envelope. Consider adding your phone number as well.

• Do not use stick-on labels. You don’t want your survey to look like junk mail.

• Include a stamped return envelope. As an alternative, ask respondents to fax back their answers.

• Do not mail the questionnaire on the first of any month, when people are the busiest.

• Mail the survey on Monday or Tuesday so respondents will get it midweek.

Don’t Waste Your Survey

The single biggest mistake that law firms make in conducting research of any kind is not putting the results to use. That makes even the best study a waste of time and money. Your survey consultant should present a final report that highlights the most salient results and give recommendations for areas in which the firm can take action. Then it is up to you to ensure that the changes are implemented. Have firm management review the consultant’s recommendations and create its own. Publicize the positive results of your survey through an intrafirm newsletter. Let everyone know about recommended changes in firm procedures in the same way.

Whatever type of survey you conduct, put your results to use within your firm. Act on them. Then you will see tangible results from your investment.

Molly George ( has an MBA in marketing and is President of CounselVoice, Inc., in Piscataway, NJ. Contact her at (952) 974-9573.

For more on conducting surveys and finding legal research consultants, check these sites:

• The Law Firm Marketing Portal ,

• The Legal Marketing Association ,