American Judges Association


Date of this Version



Court Review, Volume 45, Issue 4, 104-109


Copyright © 2009 American Judges Association. Used by permission.


An important management truth is that there is more than one way to get things done and done well in the workplace. There is rarely a single, best way for either a private company or a public institution to organize itself to achieve high-quality outcomes for its customers. Formulating an effective strategy for a particular workplace requires a good understanding not only of the formal structure and lines of authority, but also of the unwritten rules, unofficial networks, and underlying behavioral norms that shape how work gets done. As a result, knowledge of an organization’s culture is a crucial factor when searching for ways to improve operational effectiveness.

The effort to better understand the role culture plays in shaping how courts operate is an enduring component of modern court administration research, with strong implications for both what we think courts are and what they can become. A line of research that began three decades ago contends the views of judges and attorneys are the critical determinants of the emphasis that courts place on administrative goals (e.g., timeliness) and whether they embrace new ideas and innovative procedures. Thomas Church et al. call these views “local legal culture” and argue that they account for why some cases are resolved more quickly than others. Variation among courts in the speed of litigation is not accounted for by objective characteristics, such as the number of cases assigned to each judge or the presence (or absence) of particular procedures (e.g. master or individual calendar). Rather, if practitioners believe cases can be resolved expeditiously, cases are in fact resolved expeditiously. In other words, people live up to their expectations.

A more sweeping statement on the importance of judicial views as the source of what a court does is articulated by subsequent scholars. Peter Nardulli et al. advance the proposition that there are in fact distinctive “work orientations” that account for virtually all of the key administrative differences among courts. Brian Ostrom and Roger Hanson build on this insight to show how particular views among prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are associated with the timeliness of criminal case processing, both overall and by case type. Yet, while the existence and relevance of court culture is now more clearly recognized, the exact way the “views” influence culture and affect how work gets done remains elusive because of the lack of specification and measurement.