Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Monday, February 16, 2004

JD2B links to a law review article about what law schools and legal education can learn from the Oakland A's baseball team and its general manager, Billy Beane, following Michael Lewis's 2003 book, "Moneyball," about how Beane has in a lot of ways revolutionized the baseball front office. I read Moneyball last year, not long after it came out, and enjoyed it, although I thought it was too short, and would have loved it to go even more in-depth. But overall it was good. And obviously stuff about law school interests me. So I was excited to read this -- perhaps the first law review article I was ever excited to read. My thoughts below.

The authors' main point in the article is that just as how Billy Beane brought rigorous numerical analysis to baseball, legal education would be better served by bringing rigor to law school rankings, like the ones U.S. News has created a very profitable cottage industry around (side note: imagine being the guy who told U.S. News they should start ranking stuff? gotta be one of the top 100 best business decisions of the last twenty years, I would think. is U.S. News identified with anything as much as their identified with their rankings? Time has the Man of the Year, U.S. News has its rankings, and Newsweek... uh... prints stories and stuff...).

The first chunk of the article basically summarizes Moneyball, and sets out the idea that before what one might call a statistical revolution in baseball, started by sabermetrician Bill James, baseball executives were using bad information to make decisions, and even good management couldn't overcome that. Post-James, and pre-Billy Beane, teams had that good statistical information, but general managers refused to use it -- hence the problem had switched to good information and bad management. Beane exploited this inefficiency and began using good information combined with good management -- which led to unorthodox picks in the amateur baseball draft based not so much on how good a player "looked" but what his statistics had been.

The next chunk compares law school to baseball, finding them similar in their competitiveness and the existence of "winners" and "losers" in the rankings and in faculty recruitment. But while in baseball, there are wins and losses to measure quality, in legal education, we had nothing -- until the U.S. News rankings. The authors make an interesting point that regardless of how accurate or inaccurate the rankings are, whether they measure something or nothing at all, the mere existence of rankings is useful because it allows students to sort themselves, and gives law firms and other legal employers the ability to make judgments based on how those students have sorted -- since more students, and more qualified students, will apply to schools at the top of the rankings -- to send a signal to law firms -- those schools will have to become more and more selective because of space reasons -- and thus they will be validating those signals... thus the rankings themselves lead to effective sorting regardless of the merits of the rank. I've just done a terrible job of explaining that clearly. Read the article for better than that. The article makes another interesting side point that among the "alternative ranking systems" that have been proposed, the schools where the rank-inventing professors teach all finish higher under their alternative systems than under the US News system. Nice.

The article then goes into a fairly long discussion about how to measure faculty quality that I found myself skimming, mostly because it wasn't about baseball. :) One thing they find is that publishing in a law review as a student, or publishing a bunch of articles (more than one) before getting the first tenure-track job are both solid indications of more publishing to come, in good journals -- but that "pedigree" variables don't really matter much (rank of law school, whether on law review, clerkship, advanced degree).

One problem with the article's underpinnings, as I see it -- and I realize this is entirely a baseball argument and has nothing to do with legal education -- is that it trusts Moneyball too much. Yes, all evidence points to Beane being an excellent general manager. I wouldn't dispute the argument that he's the best in baseball. But his unorthodox picks in the amateur draft haven't all panned out, and many of them are in fact underperforming. Much of the A's success has been based around their three young pitchers -- Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder -- who have all stayed healthy and developed into top-of-the-rotation starters. Beane surely deserves credit for their development -- but most teams with three top starters, regardless of what statistics the general manager is using -- will find success. See the 2003 Chicago Cubs, for example -- and no one's accusing them of leading the sabermetric revolution. Many of the players Beane has sought -- Erubiel Durazo and Scott Hatteberg, just to pick two -- have performed solidly but below expectations. The statistics tell us something, but I'm not sure Beane has yet to find the Holy Grail. He may, but I don't know that we're there yet. So, on that level, to me the analogy holds a little less power.

Eh. The article was kind of interesting, but the analogy only went so far -- Beane brought statistics in to make his team better; how can we bring statistics in to hire better faculty at law schools. It's okay, but it's not the world's most exciting argument.

An interesting read if the quality of law school faculty interests you, or you want a quick summary of Moneyball. If you're a baseball fan who doesn't care that much about law review publication rates -- and I suppose that probably means you're not looking to read any law review articles anyway -- you can just as easily pass.