Know What’s Different about Internal Surveys

When a law department polls its own members or clients (employees who ask the legal department for services) or when a law firm polls its lawyers or staff, those are what I call internal surveys. They take place withing the walls of the firm or department. We have no way of knowing how many internal surveys take place in the United States. I have done dozens as parts of consulting projects, but I can’t extrapolate, and I’ve never seen data about the frequency of the non-public facing practice of conducting surveys. I am confident, nevertheless, that it happens quite commonly.

Many of this guidebook’s pointers address external surveys because their visibility, as measured by the number of publicly released reports, gives us not only a better gauge on how often they are carried out but also on their methodology and output. Here, let’s highlight ways that an external survey differs from an internal survey.

Feedback: When your survey touches your own people, they know you and can talk with members of the project team in the coffee room, on the phone, or by texting. Unlike the depersonalized remoteness of external surveys where e-mail may be the only contact link to an absolute stranger, internal surveys are based on and allow personal contact.

Population: External surveys produce a sample from the population that is their target. The sponsor often does not know how many potential respondents lurk out there and must make do with the small portion who find out about the survey and choose to take part. It is a sample and may not be representative. By contrast, if a general counsel sends a survey to the 32 lawyers in the department, the general counsel knows everything about them as a group. That internal survey is much closer to a census, where you try to hear from everyone in the target group.

Anonymity: The drawback of knowing all about a population, such as all the paralegals who are polled in a law department, is that the invitees may have more concerns about whether their personal information will leak or be used inappropriately. Even if the Human Resources department conducts the survey and assures respondents that none of their answers will be shared with the law department, internal respondents may lack trust and feel vulnerable. Whoever can see scatter plots or summaries of data has a better chance of guessing who the person is who provided that answer if they know the universe of potential respondents so well. Closed systems risk disclosure.

Power: Whoever conducts an external survey doesn’t have leverage to use the information it obtains to coerce any action. External surveys are not about power. Internal surveys, on the other hand, give the person who gathers the information insights that others do not have and therefore gives them a lever of power. For example, when you know about morale and engagement, you have more tools for reward and discipline, which translates into organizational and managerial power.

Marketing: Internal surveys make no pretenses to be marketing. Thus, they can have rougher edges, a less polished report, or no formal report at all. They aren’t trying to spread the word.

Participation rates: A law firm can expect participation by nearly 100% of its partners in a compensation survey, to offer one illustration. The firm has many ways of highlighting the survey and urging everyone to play their part. It’s completely different with an external survey, where the rates of clicking on a survey link and completing it could be in the low single digits. Relatedly, therefore, an external survey may be marred by response biases.

Specificity: An internal survey can use company-specific jargon and acronyms. It needn’t spell out some ideas as completely as would an external survey where people have widely differing knowledge bases. Text comments on internal surveys need to be scrubbed particularly carefully so that they don’t out the writer if quotes are used.

Expense: If a general counsel wants to survey the department about the effectiveness of software available to it, the general counsel may be able to use survey software and resources of the company at no cost. Even the analysis of the data received back may be outsourced to an expert in the company at little cost.