Are we capable of understanding law departments?

I am serious about this question, even after 18 years of doing nothing but trying to understand how to improve law departments. And Professor Jay Forrester, the world-famous emeritus professor at MIT who has studied complex systems for 40 years, offers an explanation why. “most social organizations … represent a far higher level of complexity and abstraction than most people can grasp on their own.” (40 Strategy + business, Fall 2005 at pg. 80, an interview of Forrester). Leaders who persist in making management decisions based on mental models – instinctive theories they have about the way their organization works – are “decidedly inferior to policies and strategies based on computer models of ‘system dynamics – the interplay of complex, inter-related forces over time.”

I have repeatedly bumped into difficulties assigning my posts to categories. Most posts could fall under more than one category; most of the categories overlap with other categories (for example, “productivity” could subsume everything and “talent management” could cover everything to do with people, which is everything). No taxonomy of concepts adequately and exclusively encompasses the manifold complexity of even the smallest law department’s operations.

Colin McGinn, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers, has concluded that humans have made little progress for millennia in solving the basic issues of philosophy because our mental capabilities are not up to the task. It’s not shameful to realize that a problem over-matches our abilities; it is embarrassing to claim falsely that we know the solution; and it cowardly to give up.

We take refuge in simplification (“It’s all about the people.”); we seize upon a comforting linchpin (“Technology will raise productivity.”); we ignore forces that we devalue or overlook (“Support staff are fungible and of no consequence.”)

Depressing, yes, but perhaps we are too early in the pursuit to even contemplate catching the full understanding of law departments.

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