Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Billy Beane hates the Mets, and so do I

Please God, not another Subway Series!
Of late, Bill Henderson and Paul Horwitz have paid me the huge compliment of praising the creation of MoneyLaw and contesting some of the hit-and-run items I have posted on this forum. Paul has staged a two-part series, first addressing MoneyLaw's treatment of credentials and then questioning whether my belief in "pure potential with no credentials" can be squared with Sexton-style law school marketing. Bill, for his part, laid down a very soft gauntlet by asking, "Where's the Moneyball in MoneyLaw?" "Jim," he says, "you need a theory."

Yes, I owe these gentlemen, and the MoneyLaw readership at large, a fuller theoretical account. But that account could take several weeks' worth of posts, and I am blogging from a hotel room in a foreign country. So for now I will offer a series of short confessionals. Along the way I hope to hint at some of what motivates my thinking on performance, credentialing, and prestige in legal academia.

Confession #1: Now that my law school has more or less filled its AALS dance card, I don't mind revealing that I no longer look at the law school, graduate school, or judicial clerkship fields in the Faculty Appointments Register form, except to anticipate, perchance to defuse, the potentially fatuous use of these credentials to bypass worthy faculty candidates. When you can read and you can count, and virtually every plausible candidate in this market has produced at least one draft article, credentials become worse than worthless. They divert attention from the real task at hand, which is evaluating a candidate's scholarly and pedagogical potential. Recall the basic lesson of federal securities law: past performance is no guarantee of future performance, but it is better than any other type of available evidence.

So yes. I'll look for the usual markers of academic prestige, which do correlate (albeit poorly) with probable future performance, but almost entirely for the defensive purpose of fending off the destructive use of credentials in evaluating faculty candidates.

Confession #2: Why do I hate credentials so much? I do hold a nice clutch of them — a fancy law school degree, an exalted law review position, and a very gaudy (if ideologically crippling) pair of federal clerkships. I learned a great deal from Judge Luttig and Justice Thomas, not least my instinctive distrust of theory and ideology and my corresponding preference for pragmatism. Yes, I did well in my youth, and I have a nice little academic perch for my trouble. But I now know that I went to law school for the wrong reasons and wish I had done almost anything else.

Billy BeaneLet me explain by recalling one of my sports heroes, Billy Beane. Michael Lewis's Moneyball recounts how Beane allowed the prospect of being a high pick, perhaps even the first overall pick, in baseball's amateur draft to steer him away from playing collegiate baseball for Stanford. Beane went on to win the 270-foot dash at the combine and sign as the fifth overall pick with the New York Mets. His career as a baseball player, to put it mildly, stank. He came to regard signing with the Mets as the biggest mistake of his professional life.

When I took the LSAT in 1986, during the summer before my senior year in college, I wanted more desperately than anything else to have a credential, any credential, that would give me a little more credibility with the academic elite. Two degrees from Emory University and a good taste of engineering from Georgia Tech, so I imagined, would not stand the social test of the national academic elite. Law school appealed to me because it required no real prerequisites, because I was told I had a good shot at a top school, and because law had a realistically attainable elite track running through, well, law review and a judicial clerkship. An actual love of law — that was optional. How do I feel two decades later? Let's just say that my feeling toward the law today is comparable to the typical Edith Wharton character's view of marriage.

Yes, I aced the credential quest, version 2.0, and thereby buried what I considered a disappointing run through version 1.0. And acing law school has enabled me essentially to make a healthy living as a full-time intellectual dilettante and a part-time managerial maverick. It's materially comfortable to be a member of the sinecured secular priesthood called academia. But like my hero Billy Beane, I know deep down that I should never have enrolled at Harvard Law School, which will forever live in my heart as the educational equivalent of the New York Mets — not intrinsically evil by any stretch, but a constant reminder of making lifelong commitments for all the wrong reasons. And like Billy, my only realistic option going forward is to try my hardest to succeed on somewhat contrarian terms in a line of work I wish I'd never embraced as my own.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeez, is there any lawyer out there who actually enjoys being a lawyer? What the hell is wrong with the world?

8/23/2011 10:40 PM  

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