Sunday, November 19, 2006

Beane counters

Billy BeaneFrom Moneyball to The Blind Side:

The educational gospel according to Michael Lewis

A MoneyLaw series
Billy Beane loves home runs and walks. He loves them so much that Rob Neyer of ESPN has devised something called the Beane Count. According to Neyer, "the Beane Count is derived by summing a team's ranks in home runs hit, walks drawn, home runs allowed, and walks allowed." (Herewith an interesting analysis of Beane counting outside the baseball context.) Although the Beane Count falters because it insists on converting multiple ordinal numbers into a single scalar value (the same flawed practice that confounds the Bowl Championship Series and Olympic ice skating), it reflects some reasonably good baseball thinking. Home runs automatically score runs. Bases on balls represent a triple threat: (1) They put batters on base, (2) they exhaust opposing pitchers, and (3) they allow hitters to see more pitches, which in turn increases their chances of putting the ball into play with authority during later plate appearances against the same pitcher.

So what does this have to do with law teaching? As Michael Lewis explained in Moneyball, Billy Beane came to embrace statistical analysis as his primary, even exclusive, tool for player evaluation after realizing that other tools yielded wildly inconsistent and unreliable results. In particular, raw speed and scouting judgments based often on nothing more than a hunch led teams like the Mets to waste first-round draft picks on players like . . . Billy Beane.

By now the conflict between credentials and performance has become standard fodder on MoneyLaw. Still, one question demands an answer. Given "only two variables ha[ve] any predictive power for 'more and better' scholarship: (1) number of articles before first tenure-track job, and (2) publication of a student note" (per Bill Henderson), why do law school websites, appointments committee scouting sheets, and the like ever bother counting anything else? You can easily discover how many former Supreme Court clerks, Rhodes Scholars, and law review editors work at almost any American law school. If the website doesn't tell you outright, proudly written faculty biographies highlight these credentials. But no one ever reports, at least in readily digestible form, the number of articles and/or books, the number of pages, or the number of citations, even though those numbers are more reflective of the productivity of a law faculty.

Not too long ago, law school faculties hired entry-level candidates without an expectation that rookie law professors would have started writing scholarship before they began teaching. In that sort of market, elite credentials and law school grades supplied an indirect way of assessing a candidate's marginal propensity to write and to contribute meaningfully to the intellectual life of a law faculty.

S.E. Hinton
S.E. Hinton and friends
Well, as I like to say elsewhere in this blog network, that was then; this is now. A growing number of entry-level candidates now come to the combine with completed publications. And at any rate, after a year or two, it should be possible to count -- and, better yet, to read -- a new professor's actual output. If there is no output to count or to read, that itself is evidence that the tenure committee must consider. What a professor did at age 25 in law school and at age 27 as an employee in the federal judiciary no longer matters once she or he actually starts teaching. Indeed, across the entire faculty roster, and not just in the biographies of recently hired professors, it may be worth dispensing with all credentials.

All this explains why I, whenever I am asked to describe my qualifications as a law professor, mention my current position, my publication record, and my current research agenda. If someone asks where I went to law school, whether I served on the law review, or whether I clerked, of course I'll answer. Being a Beane counter does not require that you be an Arschloch. But I don't pretend for one second that these increasingly remote experiences have any significant bearing on what I do, can do, and will do as a member of the legal academy.


Anonymous Suzanna Sherry said...

I agree that once you're in the academy, publications (and not credentials) should be what matters. But the trend toward expecting entry-level candidates to have already published has a downside: It disadvantages -- sometimes to the point of eliminating -- candidates who have the potential for great scholarship but haven't produced any because they didn't know they wanted to be a law professor from the age of 10 and/or have been working too hard at a "real law" job instead of going into some VAP, LLM or other program. And the ability to do the latter can be severely constrained for some people, especially those with family obligations. So while prior publication may be a good predictor, let's not overlook the people who have decent reasons for not having published.

11/20/2006 12:27 PM  

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