Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics, explains in The Idea of Justice (Harvard Univ. 2009) at 6-7 et seq., the difference between what he calls “transcendental institutionalism” and “realization-focused comparison.” Fancy words from a philosopher, but they boil down to the difference between describing ideal justice (or any aspect of the world) and the actual availability and manifestations of justice.
As Sen quips elsewhere, all summaries are acts of barbarism, so pardon me but my meager summary of this dense idea comes to this. Much writing about law department management falls into Sen’s first category, grand statements of ideals: development of the full person, stewardship of corporate funds, deployment of knowledge, delegation of work, management of law firms, alignment with clients, investment in technology, and other chimera of general counsel. They are less descriptions than dreams, less what actually goes on in the trenches than what generals imagine as they move pieces on maps.
Instead, favor Sen’s framework, which looks at actual decisions, pragmatic management tools, feasible achievements, and the nitty-gritty of what in fact takes place. We should study changes over time, such as how Sen investigates how justice is made more widely available, rather than some heavenly end-state of perfect law department management. It is easy to extol the unattainable; it is hard to stand on the ground and deal with the modest but achievable.