And now we come to the main event, the poisoned chalice bequeathed to us by Steven Brill. Let us proceed from the specific to the general, or if you prefer the structural to the symbolic.
Are the reported numbers accurate? Silly question. We all know the answer to this: Some firms report faithfully and conscientiously and some view reporting PPP to The American Lawyer as a marketing opportunity more than as an exercise in financial disclosure.
How do I know? Because I asked. Specifically, I posted a very short online survey on Adam Smith, Esq. last year around this time, inviting firms to respond to a few questions about their experience in participating in the annual AmLaw survey on PPP. In part this was prompted by a Bloomberg Law video interview with Kim Kleman, editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer, in which she came out strongly in favor of transparency immediately before I posted the survey. Bloomberg had interviewed me on the same topic and I said then and renew today that I’d be delighted to be on a panel with Kim Kleman on this topic any time and anywhere. (Also see this Above the Law piece.)
As I said at the time, I couldn’t have put it better myself than Kim Kleman did:
“[The AmLaw rankings] are at the very core of what we do; it’s the only publicly accessible analytics of its kind. … Without rankings we’d go back to the days when it was all smoke and mirrors. …
Law is a business, a very important business, a huge business. As journalists, we believe in transparency; these firms have incredible power and we believe they become better…when this kind of information is out there in the open.”
Big big caveat. #1: I assumed requiring respondents to identify themselves by name and/or firm would cut participation to zero. So all the responses are anonymous. #2. I published this poll on August 26, 2015 and although hundreds of people clicked through to look at it, the fact that no answers were required meant that respondents self-selected (which is true for most forms of research). This is not a random sample.
With that said, I think the results I did obtain are worth publishing now if for no other reason than that I know of no other reported attempt to actually assess firms’ compliance with the AmLaw survey. As an industry it sometimes strikes me that we’ve spent a couple of decades debating whether PPP is the greatest step towards transparency we’ve ever been the beneficiary of, or Lucifer’s work incarnate. But we’ve had this debate without anyone even asking firms about their degree of participation and compliance.
Enough throat-clearing. Here’s what people said.