Samuel Johnson and a tension between reporting on management and recommending

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) “marked a revolution in English letters by being descriptive rather than prescriptive.” Unlike the efforts of the Académie Française to fix meanings and pronunciations of French words, Johnson’s different goal was to describe the state of English as it was spoken then and in the past.

Reading this in the Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 33, Winter 2009 at 93, I felt my own tension about “best practices.” Readers want this blog to be prescriptive – “Tell me what I should do regarding a management issue I face” – but I favor being descriptive – this is what other general counsel are doing or have done.

As a consultant to general counsel, I certainly hold myself out as fully capable to advise any law department on what it should do from its own situation. Those specific recommendations differ hugely from blanket statements about prescriptive “best practices” or “trends.” Most people assume that to identify a “trend” is to proclaim a best practice in the early stages (See my post of Jan. 2, 2009: the pathology of trends fabricates best practices.). I do not agree that trends – even if reliably spotted – presage best practices.

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