Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Introducing the Known Family: Knowns, Unknowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns

The latest posts by Jim and Sam bring together some ideas that I think are related. I too have bemoaned the fact that Moneylaw has yet to develop a true road map. And, yes, the sports analogy does have some limitations. What I notice, though, is those who are critical are generally defending a status quo based on assumptions and unknowns. One advance Moneylaw makes is to identify factors that are bogus in the ranking of a law school or the hiring of faculty. At worse, then, it can narrow the universe of factors in order to increase emphasis on those that are relevant. So here are some things that I think are known although my version may not completely mirror that of other Moneylaw types.

1. Reference letters are trash. Not every letter letter has to be but, even the honest ones are rendered useless by the trash. Any references who say "she will be a star," "great upside potential," "can't say enough good things" is just noise. I know schools are required to get these letters but any hiring committee that uses them as evidence of quality is kidding itself or its faculty. Letters from faculty at elite schools are worse than trash. Put them right there with infomercials. Part of the job of elite school faculty members is to sell their students. Please note that this is different from a phone call to a personal friend who will tell the truth.

2. USN&WR is very accurate. Unfortunately, it is accurate about only one thing -- where your schools is ranked in USN&WR. Are we really to believe that a school taking students with average LSATs of 158 and producing students who pass the bar and are successful attorneys is doing a worse job or is a worse law school than one achieving the same results with student having an average LSAT of 168?

3. Elite credentials are not indicators of future success as a law professor. So far these is not a molecule of evidence that graduates of elite schools make better law professors than graduates of non elite schools. As Jim has repeatedly pointed out, performance is the only thing that counts. A high ranking from an elite school may be an indicator of "potential." So what? First, I am not sure that even a high ranking from an elite school tells us much. I have been around way too many professors hired on the basis of potential who did not do much at all. I remember my start as an economic professor at a school that had also hired a beginner with wonderful credentials. While the rest of us worked and got tenure, those who hired him kept reminding everyone that "Mike" is brilliant and has potential. I do not know what became of him. Second, even if high class rank from an elite schools is an accurate predictor, is it more accurate than, let's say, graduating in the top 5 from Oregon?

4. Hiring people because other schools have an interest is makes no sense. For example, at my school we hear that a candidate has "20 call backs, etc." Is that relevant? Some of the worst reasoning ever. The 20 schools may be awful places. Your needs may be different. Remember what I said about wearing your underwear outside of your clothes. On the other hand, I do not want to be too harsh (too late now) but if you think appeals to authority are a way to sell a candidate, you probably should not be trusted to evaluate talent in the first place.

5. Law review placement is not indicative of article quality. Law review placement may matter if you are looking to hire a good telemarketer. Some folks play the game down to the very last chip. The obsession is frightening. These are the folks that tell you to call friends at other schools to lean on editors, etc. Why not just read the articles? Plus the editors are . . . , well, students. I remember two of my most interesting rejections. One was from Penn. The editor fessed up. He said, "We really like it but you are Houston so how do we know that you know what you are talking about." And then there was the one from Stanford. "We really like it and agree with it but you used the "language of economics" in your analysis."

I am sure the are more knows or at least known unknowns.


Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Dear Jeff,

You were kind to reply to my comment on your "Harvard First" post, and Jim to my comment on Adrian Peterson, but I will try not to be a constant irritant, or at least I will be a pithier irritant. (I'll also establish an identity to make rebuttal easier.) Put briefly, it's all well and good to aid in the purging of bogus factors, but it looks like your targets here are some of the most objective and measurable indicia we have. Is the world you envision one in which wise, unbiased, and truth-dispensing faculty members (i.e., not those writing letters of recommendation) engage in close critical readings of scholarship, rather than relying on letters, elite credentials, interest from other schools, and review placement? If so, aren't you closer to the scouting world Billy Beane rebelled against than the system he developed? On the student front, I'm more confident that data superior to the USNWR can be developed.

11/07/2007 5:29 PM  
Blogger eric said...

"We really like it and agree with it but you used the "language of economics" in your analysis."

I hope you learned your lesson and did your next article in the "language of interpretive dance".

11/07/2007 9:26 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

As I understand it, my bogus factors are "objective and measureable" and, thus, something BillyBoy would approve of. Yes, height, weight, blood pressure, are all objective and measureable as well. And exactly as accurate as the bogus measures I listed at predicting who will be a good law professor.

11/08/2007 7:27 AM  

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