To many readers, this question may seem slam-dunk obvious or overly-intellectualized metaphysics. To them it’s either beyond argument that law departments these days stand taller within companies, have better staff and larger budgets, and are professional peers of their law firm counterparts – all evident signs of progress. Other observers of law departments, pragmatic or uninterested in cerebration, scoff at the value of speculating about something as squishy as “progress.”
Yet I mean the question seriously and regard the answer, or pursuit of the answer, as profound. Are we getting better at management; how do we know?
Managers of law departments have certainly amassed many more tools; they have available many instances of successes and failures in management initiatives; they have seen trends come and go; they have metrics and a sense that management is crucial; they have articles, books, conferences and gatherings galore.
But despite this fuller quiver, I am not sure that in-house managers know much more about how to get the most from professionals than they did two decades ago (See my post of Oct. 1, 2006 on reflexivity.). Nor is change without its troublesome after-effects. Is it net progress that in-house lawyers today work longer hours, under more pressure, to cope with a wider array of legal challenges? Is it progress that law departments and law firms – not trusted advisors but often vendors in competitive transactions – dance farther apart? With all the hubbub about the role and scope of legal groups, is their Protean form any closer to clarity as to the best constellation of responsibilities? Progress vel non remains an important inquiry.