Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

The Fallacy Of Chesterton’s Fence

Keith Lee

A new year means new beginnings, new goals, new ideas. There is a desire to hit the reset button on well-tread patterns of behavior. This can often lead to uprooting worn methods of doing things and casting aside old habits. This can be just as true in a firm as it is in your personal life. Especially if you are new to a firm.

But of course, the problem is that law firms, big and small, are bastions of doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” Change is often not welcome. For example, look at the continuous stream of complaints about legal writing (Hereunto, wherefore, premises considered, three (3) forms…). If you’re a square peg, you’re going to be hammered into a round peg whether you like it or not. The same can be true for the manner in which matters are handled within your firm. Perhaps there is a set process for handling a routine matter, something that was put in place ten years ago and does not take advantage of modern workflow procedures. Coming in with a fresh set of eyes and understanding of computers and technology, perhaps you see a way in which to improve and build on it.

Or the firm uses a standard template for certain motions, or they give you a boilerplate contract for a certain type of real estate deal that they’ve done before. You look over the contract and find some arcane phrasing and a seemingly unnecessary clause. You see the incongruities and think you can fix them.

The problem is that you are likely falling victim to the fallacy of Chesterton’s fence….

Supposedly a favorite of John F. Kennedy, the fallacy of Chesteron’s fence is as follows:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Put simply, don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.

Policies and procedures that are in place are likely there for a purpose – another attorney has set it up that way for a reason. The same is true with the contract. More than likely there is something there you don’t see. Something their experience and perspective provides that you can’t perceive. They are not looking at it on an individual basis, but how the process has been handled over the course of dozens of cases. The process is designed to address multiple problems that could occur along the way. What might seem inefficient to you could actually be the appropriate amount of due diligence required to make sure something is done right.

As for the firm policies — if you are truly convinced you could offer a way to improve a process and add value to the firm — watch. Watch the process in a variety of matters over the course of a few months. Try to understand every aspect of it and the documents/communications that flow through it. If, after a few months of observation, you still feel as though the process can be improved, develop a plan to improve the process and implement it. But only on a single matter in which you can exert some level of control. If your experiment is successful, break it apart. Why did it work? Can it be broken down into easy-to-follow tasks? Is it something that can be rapidly taught and implemented by many people? Does it require special knowledge of some kind?

If, after all has been said and done, you genuinely feel as though you can help improve the efficiency of the workplace, then request a meeting with the lawyer responsible for the process. Ask them questions. Why was it set up in this fashion? What is it designed to address? Does he or she have any idea of how it could be improved? As you engage them on the topic, now is the time to bring out your plan and explain how it works.  Explain why you changed the process and why you believe it works better. Depending on the attorney, this could evoke genuine interest or a brutal cross-examination. Be prepared for both.

Regardless, they should be impressed by one thing: you care. You’re not a mindless drone, coming into work to grind away at your desk. You are attempting to be more productive, help the firm, add value. Yes, doing this will make you stand out in your firm and attract attention — but why do you want to blend in?

Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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