Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Winning isn't everything

Vince LombardiFrom Moneyball to The Blind Side:

The educational gospel according to Michael Lewis

A MoneyLaw series
No, winning isn't everything. If you're as avid a Green Bay Packers fan as my Ratio Juris teammate, Lori Ringhand, though, you know what Vince Lombardi told his team: It's the only thing.

So how do we define "winning"? In baseball and football, the rules are simple enough. Whichever team scores more runs or points, wins. For all its vaunted complexity and its reputation as a quantitatively complex sport, baseball is really quite simple. Every team is is trying to trade outs for runs on offense and to keep the opposition from doing the same. On offense, every play that doesn't yield an out is a good play. In the field, outs by any means are the bricks with which victories are built.

At the margin, football is a bit more complicated. The presence of a clock alters football strategy. Averaging an otherwise impressive 6.5 yards per rush is unlikely to help if your team trails by 14 with fewer than five minutes to play. The value of an individual play is also harder to gauge, since all football is situational. Whereas a home run is never bad in baseball, a 13-yard gain does no good if it comes on fourth-and-15.

FootballBut these details are just that. To end a baseball game, assuming that the Commissioner hasn't declared a tie, we must be able to declare a winner. Football almost never ends in a tie. The college variant plays multiple untimed overtime periods until a winner emerges. The National Football League allows a tie if two teams remain tied after five periods of play and the game is not a playoff content.

By contrast, law schools have no clear criteria for determining who wins and who loses. Hence the obsession with rankings, even if they are flawed and misleading. At least they generate an ordered list.

Let me offer a different list. Law schools avoid automatic defeat (a feat that should be distinguished from "winning") to the extent that they follow these simple guidelines:
  1. Your students should be passing the bar. No law school succeeds that puts its students into six-digit debt, unsecured by anything of value and dischargeable solely by work, only to deliver a bar passage rate that lags substantially behind the average passage rate in its state.

  2. A degree from your school should enable the holder to secure a job in the (general) field of her choice and in the (American) city of her choice. No law school, of course, can guarantee a particular job in a particular place. But if Greta Graduate wants to practice bankruptcy law in Charlotte, N.C., pay off her debts, and make enough money to watch the Panthers from time to time, a J.D. from your law school should enable her to snag at least one employer's attention.

  3. Faculty members should understand how teaching, scholarship, and service are strands within a tightly woven professional tapestry and should engage in all three without complaining or needing to be cajoled.
To be sure, the art of winning an unfair academic game demands much more than this. But just as good, fundamental baseball begins with effective pitching, and good, fundamental football begins with competent defense, solid law school management rests on building blocks no more complicated than these.


Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Nice Jim, if we were dealing with a corporation that is lagging in terms of its output, the market would react. So, if a law school has a 20% bar failure rate -- third in its state -- why doesn't the market similarly react? I think this gets into your utility analogy and I am anxious for the next chapter. In the terms I use, probably too often, why doesn't the market ultimately react to faculty shirking? Or does it?

11/15/2006 9:49 AM  

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