Why Corporate Legal Departments Are a Petri Dish

By William Vogeler, Esq. on August 18, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

'General counsel -- and large corporate departments -- are the law's petri dish.'

As corporate counsel balance competing interests -- acting as a company's legal naysayer and can-do partner at the same time -- they conduct business experiments they hope will lead to success. It's a delicate balance, Mark A. Cohen wrote for Forbes, that requires the general counsel to be the company's conscience at the boundaries of legality.

But what about Cohen's "petri dish"? Isn't that what scientists use to test bacteria?

Corporate Cultures

Julius Richard Petri, a German bacteriologist, bequeathed the "petri dish" to humanity after he died in 1921. He had no idea his invention would be invoked to explain corporate legal departments, but Cohen innovatively offers the comparison.

There is another way of looking at the law and the petri dish, of course. As corporate lawyers adapt to company demands, for example, they are cultivating cultures.

Such experiments can go wrong when a corporate culture is toxic. Uber could be called, "Subject No. 1."

Covington & Burling, a law firm hired to investigate sexual harassment claims at the company, reported that Uber had a "frequently chaotic and hostile work environment without adequate systems in place to ensure that violations such as sexual harassment and retaliatory behavior were dealt with professionally."

On the other hand, general counsel can create positive cultures in their law departments. FindLaw's Jonathan Tung identified five leaderhips qualities to attract people and keep them:

  • Be people-oriented
  • Give direction
  • Diversify talent
  • Show loyalty
  • Develop leadership

"Leadership, in a word, can even be handled through excellent work ethic, professionalism, and stern yet friendly guidance," he wrote.

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