Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The best of the worst versus the worst of the best

Young Brett FavreEarlier this week on this forum, Paul Caron asked:
Would the IRS be better served recruiting students at the top of the class at a non-elite school rather than a student at the bottom of the class at an elite school?
Replace the phrase the IRS with any employer, and you have the makings of a debate that is likely to be as contentious as it is important.

From our secure perches in legal academia, we have the luxury of being able to test this hypothesis. The sample sizes are likely to be small, and potential biases abound. But remember: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Define a set of law professors -- the members of your faculty, perhaps, or a cohort of comparably experienced professors in a particular field (civil procedure, federal securities law, whatever). It's going to be hard, if not impossible, to tell where each professor finished in her or his law school class, but we do know each professor's first law school alma mater. Then take stock of each member of the set according to whatever criterion of productivity you like: entries, pages, and/or citations, in raw form or weighted according to your own judgment of quality. Ready? Correlate.

IRSWith any luck, you'll get some sense of the predictive value of pedigree. In the example Paul Caron cites, the Internal Revenue Service is obviously assuming that law school pedigree matters a lot, or at least enough to outweigh the predictive value of an individual's place in her or his graduating class. Whatever the IRS is doing, let's hope you've properly defined your dependent variable. Even if you've chosen well, it might not matter. It may well be that neither the pedigree of the law school nor the individual's performance there has any predictive value. Bill Henderson's classic blog post on predictors of scholarship certainly suggests as much. But what the hell. Let's keep measuring. Repetition in pursuit of knowledge is no vice.

For my part, I've already admitted in this forum that I mostly ignore both law school pedigree and class rank. But if I had to choose, I'd go with the high-ranking graduate of the nonelite school. When forced to rely on gut instinct, I'll put my trust in someone who has worked hard to finish as high as possible, even in a less elite talent pool, ahead of someone whose lone claim to distinction depends on her or his classmates.

Here at MoneyLaw, of course, argument by anecdote is anathema. But it is football season, and I can't resist this one little story. Do you know who wore #4 for the University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in a colossal upset of Florida State on September 2, 1989? The picture up top shows him dodging the Seminole pass rush. Here's another hint: he was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round (33d overall) in the 1991 NFL Draft. According to his Wikipedia entry, this player, at least while he was in Atlanta, "was a third-string quarterback with unremarkable numbers and an affinity for partying." But 15 years later, he's still playing pro football. This elite player from a nonelite college program still wears #4 . . . for the Green Bay Packers. With the possible exception of John Elway, he's the greatest quarterback of all time. You know him as Brett Favre.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that we would be remiss in our discussion of moneyball quarterbacks if we didnt mention Johnny Unitas. While I never got to see him play (although I've seen clips), his moneyball story is legendary. A Johnny Unitas website at provides a good summary:

Johnny Unitas, extolled in countless football arenas as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game, was almost denied the chance to prove his talent. Unitas began his career as field general while a sophomore at St. Justin's High School when the quarterback broke his ankle. Johnny U, it was decided, could throw the ball well enough and was moved to the QB position with less than a week to learn the entire offense. Johnny wanted very much to go to college to continue his sport and build himself a solid foundation for the future. However, his dream team, Notre Dame, was unwilling to take a gamble that his six foot, 138 pound frame would bulk up. Unitas received an offer from the University of Louisville, and after some consideration, decided being a big fish in a small pond might be more to his advantage after all. He made a solid reputation for himself while at Louisville that got him into the ninth slot for the Pittsburgh Steelers draft of '55. Unitas was eventually told the club couldn't use him, they had too many quarterbacks.

The Steelers had waited so long to let him go that it was too late for a chance of being drafted anywhere else. Johnny was left to construction work and the Bloomfield Rams, a semi-pro team that had to sprinkle its field with oil before every game to keep the dust down--since there was no grass to do it.

Finally, one fateful day in February of 1956, the lucky call came. The Baltimore Colts were interested in what Johnny might be able to do for them.

They saw. They liked. They bought. The $7,000 contract was a far cry from the $3 a game he had been making on his dusty field. So began a 17-year career with the Colts. The 1958 title game in which Unitas took the Colts on two 80-yard drives to beat the New York Giants 23-17 is considered by many as the greatest pro football game ever played.

Johnny U retired in 1973 after one year with the San Diego Chargers. He left behind him records for: most pass attempts (5,186); most completions (2,830); most total yards (40,239); most touchdowns (290); most 300-yard games (26); and most consecutive games throwing touchdown passes (47). He led the Colts to one Super Bowl Crown, three NFL championships, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

One is left to wonder how many Johnny Unitas types academia has left behind, and what could have been had they been playing "moneylaw".

10/15/2006 7:37 PM  

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