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Two views of evolution in the management practices of legal departments

Many people think of evolution as a process of nature that leads to the improvement of a species. In a Darwinian struggle to reproduce, a “better” species comes about over time. Analogously, observers of legal departments may believe that over the past two decades, law department management has “evolved” to a more skillful, understood, and effective level. Ours is a time of “better managed” law departments.

Other people think of evolution “as creating a richly branching bush, with each branch and twig shooting off in no particular direction, and no species more ‘advanced’ than any other. The reason is that evolution does not look to the future. Its guiding principle is the here and now – local adaptations to local environments in order to get your genes into the next generation. There is no long-term goal or progressive purpose to evolution.” The quote comes from Michael Shermer, Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown (Time Books 2005) at 45.

To the extent either evolutionary analogy holds, we should look at law departments as trying to adapt to and optimize for local environments in order to thrive the next year. The struggle is not against saber-tooth tigers, but outside law firms; not wooly mammoths, but executive peers who want to grab more of the corporate budget; not inexorable glaciers but clients who resist legal advice.

Law departments as a species of organizational life do change, but the result overall may be a profusion of them fitted for their corporate niche, not a teleological ascension on the ladder of managerial progress.