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Chaos theory – non-linear functions in legal departments

Chaos theory studies phenomenon where small changes in the initial conditions result in major changes in consequences (a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil famously results in a hurricane off Bermuda). As used for physical systems, chaos events are non-linear: they are not wildly unpredictable and mysterious – the popular notion of chaos – but they have emergent properties much different than our minds easily grasp. Feedback loops account for some of the unexpected outcomes and unpredictable.

A word of advice from an in-house lawyer early in the deliberations over a pricing decision could have massive consequences years later (antitrust investigation avoided; millions in profits rightfully earned). A well-timed settlement offer takes the company down one path; botched, the bills and vexations pile up for years. If we borrow the metaphor of non-linear systems and apply them to legal teams, we risk mis-applying it, which is the lesson of Stephen E. Kellert, Borrowed Knowledge: Chaos theory and the challenge of learning across disciplines (Univ. Chic. 2008). Even so, such a power idea, caught as a conceptual metaphor, can help us understand and describe some things that happen to law departments.