Punctuated equilibrium in legal departments

The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould popularized the theory that evolution proceeds from relative dormancy sometimes by leaps and bounds. Punctuated equilibrium, Gould named it, and the idea spread far beyond fossils and Darwin.

Punctuated equilibrium may be an apt metaphor for legal departments. For long periods a department sails along, getting the work done, keeping relationships on an even keel, at a moderate level of pitch and yaw. Then equilibrium is punctured by a huge wave. Dramatic changes occur when:

A new general counsel comes onboard (See my post of Aug. 5, 2007: when to survey clients for satisfaction; Aug. 1, 2006: some consequences of a new GC from outside the company; Dec. 14, 2005: effect of the arrival of a new general counsel on outside counsel; March 7, 2006: more effects on law firms; May 14, 2006: major structural changes at Intuit through new GC; April 16, 2007: reshuffling of power in the department; April 27, 2006: on-boarding a new general counsel; May 25, 2008: expenses of relocation; June 11, 2008: new external general counsel clean house; July 28, 2008: steeple chase for the new top lawyer; April 25, 2009: thoughts on the new GC at Schneider Electric; and July 26, 2009: assessments start forming early.);

A key senior lawyer retires or leaves (See my post of March 8, 2009: attrition in law departments, with 16 references and one metapost.); or

The company ,merges and the department combines with another law department (See my post of Jan. 16, 2009: layoffs after mergers with 9 references.).

Other upheavals include when a new CEO takes office or if there are major reshufflings of responsibilities, such as the addition of compliance (See my post of May 14, 2005: GC vulnerable when CEO is removed; and March 28, 2006: CEO of PPG reorganized business structure.). Any of the above five traumas may puncture the status quo.

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