Institutional work taken literally: How logics shift as banking lawyers 'get the deal done'

Michael Smets

Research output: Unpublished contribution to conferenceUnpublished Conference Paperpeer-review


The role of interest and agency in the creation and transformation of institutions, in particular the “paradox of embedded agency” (Seo & Creed, 2002) have long puzzled institutional scholars. Most recently, Lawrence and Suddaby (2006) coined the term “institutional work” to describe various strategies for creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions. This label, while useful to integrate existing research, highlights institutionalists’ lack of attention to work as actors’ everyday occupational tasks and activities. Thus, the objective of this study is to take institutional work literally and ask: How does practical work come to constitute institutional work?

Drawing on concepts of “situated change” (Orlikowski, 1996) I supplement existing macro-level perspectives of change with a microscopic, practice-based alternative. I examine the everyday work of English and German banking lawyers in a global law firm. Located at the intersection of local laws, international financial markets, commercial logics and professional norms, banking lawyers’ work regularly bridges different normative settings. Hence, they must constructively negotiate contradictory meanings, practices and logics to develop shared routines that resonate with different normative frameworks and facilitate task accomplishment.

Based on observation and interview data, the paper distils a process model of banking transac-tions that highlights the critical interfaces forcing English and German banking lawyers into cross-border sensemaking. It distinguishes two accounts of cross-border sensemaking: the “old story” in which contradictory practices and norms collide and the “new story” of a synthetic set of practices for collaboratively “editing” (Sahlin-Andersson, 1996) legal documentation. Data show how new practices gain shape and legitimacy over a series of dialectic contests unfolding at work and how, in turn, these contests shift institutional logics as lawyers ‘get the deal done’. These micro-mechanisms suggest that as practical and institutional work blend, everyday work-ing practices come to constitute a form of institutional agency that is situated, emergent, dialectic and, therefore, embedded.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009
Event2009 Academy of Management annual meeting - Chicago, IL, United States
Duration: 7 Aug 200911 Aug 2009


Other2009 Academy of Management annual meeting
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityChicago, IL

Bibliographical note

Carolyn Dexter Award Nominee (Best International Paper, Academy of Management Meeting, Chicago)


  • institutional policies
  • institutional logics
  • practice theory
  • institutional work


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