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Two broad narrative themes in writings and presentations about law departments

The January issue of Historically Speaking has several essays on narrative. As historians use the term, it means the larger “story” told by them in their articles, monographs, and books. Different from factual accumulation, causal relation, or measured argument, the narrative power of good historical writing rests on an over-arching image it creates – a compelling tale of good against evil, steady progress or tragic teleology, noble heroes or downtrodden peasants.

The prevailing narrative in writings about law department seem to me to be two, and they conflict. One weaves and assumes a feel-good panorama of progress: spunky law departments rose up in the 1980’s, gained power and prestige through the ‘90s, and have flowered lately into bastions of skill and respected professionalism. Onward and upward!

A second narrative darkens, as it revolves around struggle and tension. Notably the give-and-take of leverage over outside counsel shows up, especially with fractious billing arrangements, or even competition. That is not all; to secure respect from clients and prove the law department’s worth has become an endless effort, one with little prospect of final victory. A narrative of Sisyphean struggle, it stretches ahead.