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Notes toward theories and systems of effective law department management

“[T]heory is a statement of concepts and their interrelationships that shows how and/or why a phenomenon occurs.” That definition from the Acad. Mgt. Rev., Jan. 2011 at 12, pushed me to contemplate the enormous amount of work that needs to be done for someone to even propose a theory of law department management.

In truth, we have barely begun. A large crowd of concepts jostle and contend, so far are we from a proposal to sort them, organize them, or unify them. Interloper theories borrowed from other disciplines have widely varying applicability. Metaphors intrigue but don’t enlighten.

All the social sciences fawn over the verifiability and reach of physical science’s theories. As examples, quantum theory and general relativity are, shall we say, light years ahead. The complexities of people interacting even within a small department, let alone with clients and law firms, make provable causal relations impossible to specify. According to Albert-László Barabási, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do (Dutton 2010) at 65, the renowned philosopher Karl Popper, concurred. “If humans are involved, prediction is impossible, so don’t even bother.” Scientific laws permit, in fact depend on, prediction, but we will never be able to predict that a given management effort for a legal team will lead to a specified result. At best the probabilities of the result will increase as the effort takes hold, but deterministic cause and effect will remain far out of reach.

A system differs from and is broader than a theory. Adam Smith developed a comprehensive system for the capitalist market, a system that famously put the baton in the invisible hand. A system orders and ranks concepts and shows their relations. A theory proposes an answer to a problem and enables predictions. So far, neither system nor theory has been advanced for the functions of a law department.

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