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Legal department consigned to “process-oriented” and thus dull

“We trust our legal department to be risk-averse and process-oriented, and as a result, they’re not very provocative and they’re not controversial.” With those disparaging words from KM World, March 2011 at S3, an executive of a content management vendor roundly dismissed at least his legal department.

Process-oriented. The image held by the executive may be more common than I want to believe. Non-lawyers may envisage a cookie factory where business terms go in and by some recipe and cutter contracts come out. Someone sues and a process grinds through discovery, papers filed in court, and in due course settlement. You need a patent; we assembly-line a patent. Behind the lawyer’s door, many might believe, it’s all so step-by-step, filling in the paperwork the courts and agencies require – while any variance from the well-trod path of process means you pick up the phone and pay a lawyer from a firm. Process-plodding.

Ironically, this blog and other observers urge process improvement in law departments, or its cousin, project management. The more we standardize and track and process map, the more efficient we will be. But to the extent we do so we may feed misimpressions senior clients hold about how rote is the work done by law departments. Call me an elitist or apologist, but the important work of in-house attorneys has a solid proportion of difficulty, unpredictability, variety and craft. Often far from process-oriented.