How management practices vary as they diffuse from law department to law department

Hundreds of management practices thrive in the ecosystem that is legal departments. Some of them stay local, others take root everywhere. Academics refer to the spread of a management practice as “diffusion.” A thoughtful article in the Acad. Mgt. Rev., Jan. 2010 at 67-92, frames an understanding of diffusion.

Take one practice, to require budgets for all matters assigned to outside counsel. No one knows which general counsel first mandated that practice, and indeed it probably had multiple, simultaneous inventors. Thereafter, other general counsel heard about the new idea and sometimes adopted it to varying degrees.

As to the degrees of adoption, the authors explain the notions of fidelity and extensiveness. An adopting law department might faithfully reproduce the practices of the first (high fidelity) or might just incorporate the forms used (lower fidelity); it might apply such a budgeting regime across the entire portfolio of matters handled outside (extensiveness) or just in certain legal areas (lower extensiveness). Further on the degree of adoption, the authors posit that practices are adapted due to what they call technical fit, cultural fit and political fit.

The ideas may seem remote or bookish, but they help us understand and think about why some techniques of potential applicability to law departments catch fire, others smolder, and many burn out (See my post of Dec. 2, 2008: two views of evolution in the management practices of legal departments; Aug. 20, 2006: the evolution metaphor and gradual changes in law department practices; and March 23, 2009: pros and cons of various practices, with 13 references and two metaposts.).

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