Postmodernist views on law-department management knowledge

In the final decades of the 20th century, a backlash to Enlightenment values came to be known as postmodernism. “Postmodernists are hostile to the idea that truth can be objective, are skeptical of the authority of science and resist the idea of progress,” according to Frank Furedi, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism (Continuum 2004) at 46, fn. 37. At the risk of being presumptuous, permit me to apply some tenets of postmodernism to legal departments.

Postmodernists “claim that all knowledge is socially constructed” (at 62). As such, they would hold that what we think we understand about how best to manage law departments is a mixture of folk wisdom, prejudices, and unexamined mental habits and constructs (See my post of Feb. 21, 2007: under-determination thesis and the theory/fact dichotomy.).

Postmodernists accept no single road to understanding, including no privileged methodology such as scientific method or quantification. By their lights, benchmarks, surveys, and natural experiments have no more probative force for managers in law departments than do anecdotes, narratives, or legends.

Progress, according to post-modernists, is an illusion, a teleology unsupported by reality. Over the past decades, according to this belief, the effectiveness of legal operations in-house has not advanced. We fool ourselves to imagine it has.

Whereas Enlightenment thinkers acclaimed universalism, truths that apply to all mankind, postmods celebrate particularism. Best practices in law departments suggests a universal application, whereas the belief that we can do no better than identify the right practice for a specific context is a particularist conclusion.

Another plank of postmodernist thought is that the language we employ falls far short of what we think and need in terms of clarity and precision. Words are unreliable and leaky vessels. How we describe law departments suffers from this inherent inadequacy.

In short, postmodern philosophy assails almost everything about what we think we might understand about law department management. Ours is a culturally bound, linquistically constrained, view of knowledge that is unmoored to any axiomatic truths. Here is a summary from another source: “Our knowledge is generally couched in language, so it does not mirror the world as we believe most of our perceptions do. Our knowledge is constructed from elements of our culture, employing concepts and forms of argument that we have learned and believe to be appropriate. Our descriptions of the world reflect our interests, values, and purposes, so they are not perfectly impartial and complete accounts of the subjects they describe.” C. Behan McCullagh, “Postmodernism and the Truth of History,” in Historically Speaking, Vol. 6, Jan./Feb. 2005 at 8.

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