C. Northcote Parkinson promulgated laws applicable to corporate operations in the 1950s, the most famous of which is Parkinson’s Law No. 1: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
Less famous but equally important is Parkinson’s Law No. 3: “Unless the sum is beneath their notice, the amount of time board members spend on an issue is inversely proportional to the sum involved.” Or Parkinson’s Law No. 4: “Committees tend to increase in size until they collapse.”
We suggest there is a corollary to Parkinson’s Laws: “Principles applicable to corporate operations are often just as applicable to the practice of law.” Billing by the hour is ideally suited to Parkinson’s Law No. 1. Even if lawyers are not so cynical to think, “You set the hourly rate, I set the number of hours,” subconsciously it is so easy for lawyers, junior associates especially, who have pressure to bill a certain number of hours, to keep working on a file until a deadline is reached.
Unlike many lawyers, clients today are rediscovering the truth of Parkinson’s Law No. 1 and are refusing to pay for much of the time of junior associates. This is not merely eliminating a traditional profit center for law firms. More important, it is decreasing the incentive to hire entry-level lawyers at all. Thus is created, along with other factors, the well-publicized crisis today for law students looking for jobs and a less noticed crisis tomorrow for the legal profession looking for leaders.
The latter crisis will occur when the quality of senior lawyers declines because they are chosen from a smaller pool of junior lawyers. (While the best students usually find an entry-level job based on their class rank, the correlation between the best students and the best lawyers is not so clear as one might expect.)
The possible solution to these twin crises implicates Parkinson’s Law No. 3. Parkinson gives the example of the corporate board considering whether to purchase an atomic reactor (remember, this was the 1950s) and whether to build a bicycle shed for the staff. The board spends far more time discussing the bicycle shed. Parkinson’s conclusion is that the board can relate better to the shed than to the reactor.
The same conclusion can be reached about crises in the legal profession. Like Parkinson’s board members, we tend to discuss solutions we can relate to, such as increasing the number of “practical” courses in law school, improving law school assistance in seeking jobs, offering more mentoring programs for young lawyers, and advising young lawyers to gain experience through pro bono volunteering. Maybe we need to concentrate more on solutions we cannot so easily relate to, such as adjusting to a society with far fewer lawyers.
As leaders of the bar concentrate on how to deal with the brave new legal world, we all must keep Parkinson’s Law No. 4 in mind: solutions to big problems rarely come from large committees. Drafting the Declaration of Independence was assigned to a committee of five and the committee delegated most of the work to one member.
Parkinson lived in another era, but his Laws are for all eras. They help us to see clearly the crises in the legal profession and the proper ways to approach their solution.•