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What do lawyers mean when they say their department has or lacks hierarchy?

Some lawyers describe their department as “hierarchical.” I have tried to unravel the concepts in that term because it has many. Five of them are summarized below.

  1. Rank has more than its share of privileges. Distinctions in levels manifest themselves in many ways. Hierarchy has to do with special perquisites for those who are higher on the totem pole.

  2. Information flows up and down chains of command, and mostly, to the extent it does flow, down. Hierarchy has to do with topside control of knowledge about what’s happening.

  3. A small number of lawyers make the key decisions. Usually they fall to a senior legal team of the direct reports to the general counsel. Hierarchy has to do with who makes the final calls.

  4. Access to the top lawyers doesn’t come easily nor do skip-level discussions take place the other way. Hierarchy has to do with protocol and opportunities to meet or talk with levels above you.

  5. Sometimes the notion involves multiple rungs on the career ladder. People aspire to promotion and larger departments have many levels. Hierarchy has to do with moving up in a law department.

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