General counsel learn more about management from “action verbs” than from “achievement verbs”

Linguistics philosopher Gilbert Ryle made a distinction between what he called task or action verbs and achievement or success verbs. In the context of legal departments, “write off” and “settle” are task verbs (they refer to doing something); “economize” and “resolve” are their achievement counterparts (they referred to goals, desirable outcomes).

Much that is written about law departments is clotted with achievement verbs — identify, develop, implement — that sound admirable but offer no clue as to how a general counsel can accomplish them in specific contexts. Consultants, for instance, help general counsel if they recommend with task verbs (“Stop using 15% of your law firms.”) rather than with “achievement verbs” – they always sound like platitudes (“Streamline your use of outside counsel.”). This distinction in verbs (and advice) comes from strategy + business, Issue 54, Spring 2009 at 115.

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