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Scrutinizing wannabe new ideas in law department management

At the end of the Harvard Business Review’s list of 20 breakthrough ideas for 2005 (pg. 54), Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s business school, offered five guidelines that general counsel should keep close at hand when they evaluate putatively new management ideas. Two stood out.

Be skeptical of “proof by anecdote.” Narratives and stories, such as how Gizmo Corp.’s law department installed flower boxes and morale soared, move listeners and stick in their minds, “but their color may obscure … evidence of whether a practice actually worked.” The dramatic story may assume cause and effect, for example, and it may sacrifice critical details in the interest of effective storytelling. The law department that broke through the traditions of outside counsel feedback undoubtedly had much else going on at the same time, and the journalist or speaker spinning the tale inevitably simplifies and integrates messy facts.

Second, scrutinize ideas that are half-truths, which are “ideas that are partly or sometimes right but also partly or sometimes wrong.” Proponents of a practice are more credible when they acknowledge the downsides and suggest ways to cope with them. Consider, for example, the idea to “hire the best in-house counsel you can afford” and how it harbors a darker untruth – not all the work done inside merits law review abilities and you can’t always find such a stellar fit.

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