The bureaucratic structure of the legal profession is one of the most powerful, but least visible influences, on how lawyers practice law. Whether it be a corporate counsel office, a law firm, a governmental agency, or a court system, almost all lawyers today work within a bureaucratic structure. And that structure impacts how they work.
Yet most discussions of lawyering focus on the actions of the individual lawyer instead of the system that drives those actions. The measures used to determine how much each lawyer is paid and who is promoted are good examples. Is volunteer work for a nonpaying client seen as a sign that a young lawyer is eager to perfect his or her skills or that he or she does not take the “real” work seriously enough? Even an apparently insignificant act like publishing how many cases each judge has “disposed of” each year will affect how the legal system works.
I am happy to report that popular entertainment, or at least one popular entertainment, can give us a handle of the dynamics of bureaucracy. David Simon and Ed Burns’ celebrated series The Wire gives us an incisive analysis of how systemic concerns shape individual actions. While Simon and Burns include stories of how bureaucratic concerns affect lawyer and judicial actions, the agency they most closely study is the Baltimore Police Department. But while there are certainly differences between a police force and a law firm, I think we will see that there are also instructive similarities with regard to the effects of working in a bureaucracy.
In Simon and Burns’ portrait of the Baltimore Police Department, most employees fit into one of three categories—“careerist,” “lifer,” or “pro.” Careerists mostly judge a proposed action by how it will aid or hinder their progression up the bureaucratic career ladder. Deputy Commissioner Burrell is an excellent example of the successful careerist. He started as a novice in the police academy and ends up the Chief of Police. The careerist has talents, but not the talents that would entice an idealist to become a police officer. Successful careerists like Burrell are clever internal politicians, weighing carefully the effect that any proposed action might have on future career opportunities. This concern with advancement can divert the careerist from doing the police work that most helps the community.
Another large group of police officers might be termed “lifers” Lifers are the “soldiers” of the Baltimore Police Department. The lifer is not interested in advancement to the highest level of the bureaucracy; his or her true ambition is retirement with pension. That does not mean that some lifers are not conscientious workers. “Bunk” Moreland is a good example of a righteous lifer; he just wants to stay within the operating orders handed down. He knows that the policies are often short-sighted, but does not see it as his role to challenge them. Other lifers are happy to do the least amount of work the bureaucracy will accept.
The third category of police officer on The Wire is the “professional”. The”pro” may work for a bureaucracy, but he or she maintains independent professional standards for judging how to do the job. And while department policies are serious constraints on his or her discretion, they do not determine how a pro goes about “policing.” In a well-functioning bureaucracy, a compromise will be silently reached between “chain of command” authority and individual officers’ need for autonomy to do their job well. .
The best examples of “pros” in The Wire are Captain Cedric Daniels and Officer Jimmy McNulty. Daniels and McNulty are anything but twins. Daniels with his rigid military bearing has a strong careerist bent. At the beginning of the series he is moving quickly up the organizational ladder. McNulty is by nature a maverick, instinctively suspicious of all authority figures, including Daniels. But they share a pride in doing good police work that transcends their personal differences.
I recognize that the careerist/lifer/pro trichotomy is simplistic, especially in The Wire where the pros are always heroes and the careerists and lifers mostly villains or slugs. But I still find it instructive. Fiction often uses hyperbole for dramatic effect. I think that these categories can be helpful if we see them as identifying human traits we all share. Not only is there a little careerist or lifer in all of us, the values these orientations reflect can make valuable contributions to an organization.
In a large organization there must be internal rules to guide individual discretion; the careerist is the guardian of these rules that make sure that everyone is working from the same script. So too one important reason we work is to provide the means to do what we enjoy when we are not working. There is no organizational requirement that everyone be equally zealous to succeed. As much as I admire Jimmy McNulty, I recognize that a police force composed entirely of McNultys would be a disaster.
It’s all a matter of degree. But I think The Wire has it right in suggesting that in most organizations, the “‘pro “ values are underweighted because they are not directly connected to concrete rewards. But the bureaucratic regimen is always a little out of date in meeting new problems. That’s when it makes sense for all bureaucrats, but especially lawyers, to think of new solutions that stretch the organizational envelope. The flexibility of this approach works better for the organization, the employee, and the public.
Remember to support your inner pro.
( I discuss the ramifications of the “ pro” model at greater length in my essay “Heroes for Hard Times.” http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2496708 )