Warren Buffett’s Institutional Imperative and Law Schools

Warren Buffett minted a concept he calls the institutional imperative to describe a nettlesome phenomenon in business organizations that can introduce costly and enduring mistakes. The concept may explain something about how law schools got themselves into the difficulties they are in today, and why it may be so hard to escape them.

Buffett’s concept is encapsulated in the following series of attributes, adapted suitably for law schools. Their cumulative effect is to cause rationality to wilt in institutional decision making:

(1) as if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction.

(2) just as work expands to fill available time, academic projects or appointments will materialize to soak up all available resources.

(3) academic cravings of the Dean, however foolish, will often be quickly supported by committees charged with bold tasks reflected in names such as Strategic Planning and Self Study and platoons of Associate Deans and Program Directors eager to produce glossy brochures boasting of the latest academic achievement.

(4) the behavior of peer schools, whether in changing the first year curriculum, adding clinical programs or other experiential learning, renovating the third year, adding new specialty journals, making splashy lateral appointments, reducing course loads, paying summer research grants or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

Institutional dynamics, not venality or stupidity, set schools on these courses, which are often misguided. Deans today and faculty seeking to hire new deans would do well to think hard about Buffett’s institutional imperative and organize and manage their schools in ways that minimize its influence.

* See The Essays of Warren Buffett (ch. II.F: Cigar Butts and the Institutional Imperative).


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1 Response

  1. Jackson says:

    Hear, hear! I believe the current paradigm which informs the predominant trajectory for law students is riddled with unnecessary expenditures, courses, and coursework that serve the student to no end except to increase excuses for the school to turn profit and induce debt on the part of the customer (student). If law programs could be streamlined and distilled down to the rarest and most important components, law school would cheaper, schools could hire more seasoned and worthy professors, and perhaps even offer more scholarships to well deserving, economically challenged. The prevailing model is all about keeping up with the Joneses, increasing brand visibility so as to arouse interest in the product, and dragging out academic career paths for as long as possible, so as to make as much profit off of each individual. Ultimately, the student suffers and (in turn) society.