Bureaucracy Benefits Law Firms (And Bails Out RI’s Federal Judgeship Nom)

This week, the GOP took advantage of Congressional red tape to block a federal judge nomination. Republican Party leaders orchestrated a filibuster to stop Rhode Island trial lawyer John McConnell from reaching the bench. And, until yesterday, the GOP almost succeeded in manipulating the American bureaucratic system.  

“A few years ago, Republican senators argued that filibusters of judicial nominees were unconstitutional. They said that every nominee was entitled to an up or down vote,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Well, of course they said that with a Republican president. Now suddenly things have changed.”  

The use of filibusters is still a contentious issue among U.S. policy makers. However, bureaucracy—rule-making, hierarchy of authority, and administrative guidelines—is almost unanimously viewed as a negative entity—inefficient and flawed. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a government or business official who would laud the merits of bureaucracy. Law firms, on the other had, have been shown to benefit from corporatist organization, which maximizes employee loyalty and increases attorney commitment.  

Implementing a strict administrative and hierarchical system at law firms adds structure “by enhancing employee integration, upward mobility, participation in decision making, and legitimacy of the authority system,” which lawyers are shown to highly value. As such, these systems provide incentives for lawyers that increase their commitment to the firm, according to a study by Social Forces.[1]

Traditionally conflict has divided professional goals from bureaucratic ones. In the case of federal judge nominations, the conflict is between professional and political goals. Is the best candidate for the job the best choice for the party?  

But law firms are unique entities. Bureaucracy is built into attorney titles and functions already: first-year associates are belittled by second-year associates, and so on. Status is determined by the number of years an attorney has been practicing law. It is gained gradually and laterally. In the same way, lawyers value and are motivated by a similar structure within their law firm administration.   

“The most significant variables appear to contribute to lawyers’ professionalism and professional careers in that they provide a sense of collegiality, contribute to professional career opportunities within the firm, and allow for individual discretion and control.”   

We’ve already seen how autonomy, mastery, a sense of purpose motivates employees to work productively, more than providing monetary incentives. These three intrinsic incentives can be achieved through the implementation of a strict and transparent bureaucracy. This means standard language on documents and memorandums, policy manuals regarding time and schedules, associate and paralegal training programs, and a reporting chart, so that it’s clear who is responsible for creating or changing these rules.      

The benefits structure should also be outlined in terms of what tangible work product will earn an employee a promotion or other professional reward. And, the system should be a democratic one, where each echelon retains some sort of representation or decision-making power.  

The Senate filibuster failed, and President Obama’s choice for federal judge was at last confirmed in a 50-44 tally on Wednesday. But, that doesn’t mean all members of government weren’t given a vote, voice, and choice of administrative recourse in the matter.  



To read the AP coverage of the confirmation, go here.

[1] Walllace, Jean E., “Corporatist Control and Organizational Commitment Among Professionals: The Case of Lawyers Working in Law Firms” Social Forces; The University of North Carolina Press, March 1995,73(3):811-839.


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