The survivor bias and law department best practices

We hear about law departments that have made a success of a particular management practice:  the journalist’s praise, the innovation award, the conference speaker boasting accomplishment of a convergence program or diversity initiative, the proud article on the portal installed or the creative restructuring of the European operations.  Success stands up and shouts, magnified by repetition.

Failure lies silent, lost in oblivion.  Other law departments carried out each of the publicized departments’ practices, but merger wiped them out, or the company failed, or some other organizational tsunami wiped out the department’s triumphs.  Or many departments fired the silver bullet, but missed because of funding restrictions, change of management, loss of a talented champion, new corporate policies, bad project management or any of the many other reasons change fails to take place.  Finally, many departments lack the skills and drive of self-promotion, so their story goes untold. 

Because of the so-called survivor bias, where we mostly encounter departments that claim success for their undertaking, we never hear from law departments that tried a practice and disappeared, fell short of accomplishment, or didn’t seek the limelight.  Worse, we don’t know about the law departments that tried the practice and had it backfire.  We only learn about the successful practitioners.  These ideas came from a piece in the Harvard Business Review (April 2005).

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