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The limits of metrics in law department management – but save the baby

Much of what happens in and regarding law departments doesn’t permit measurement. That intractable limitation on our understanding and analysis was underscored by an obituary in the Economist, March 10, 2012 at 106, of James Q. Wilson. The Harvard professor spent decades studying politics and society, subjects where challenges of methodology and data precision abound. “None was more thorny, for him, than quantifying the evidence. Many of the social problems he pondered seemed to boil down to culture and ways of thinking, for which the data were ungathered and ungatherable. As a scientist … he needed to count and collate things to find the answers to his questions. But nothing that was really important about human beings, he once said, could be measured in that fashion.”

Law departments being nano-societies, their mores, characteristic styles and operating conditions, their contributions to the client’s success, likewise elude measurement. The personality of the general counsel and the collegiality of the leadership group, the passion of the paralegals, and the engagement of the staff absolutely affect how well the legal team functions, but we can’t tally and analyze those important elements. Data is ungathered and ungatherable, notwithstanding a plethora of psychometric instruments. Even if a single law department collects some numbers, no comparable data would be available from a sufficient number of other law departments.

Metrics can only go so far, at this time. That bleak forecast, I hasten to add, doesn’t vitiate benchmarks. Don’t toss the bathwater of the immeasurable without grabbing the baby. Metrics go hand in hand with management, even if other aspects of a department hold the other hand.

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