Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Legal academia's rookie combine

NFL Combine
First the Super Bowl, then the NFL combine. Mike Madison imagines how legal academia might emulate the drills by which National Football League scouts evaluate rookie talent:
Passionate followers of professional football know that the National Football League is just now concluding its annual “combine,” the camp where would-be draftees get timed, tested, and measured by pro scouts in anticipation of draft day. There are speed tests, jumping tests, “position specific events,” measurements, and the famous or infamous Wonderlic intelligence test. . . .

Brady at the combine
One of the goals of the NFL combine is to identify diamonds in the rough, fabulous athletes whose professional potential was obscured by a mediocre college team. Law school faculties, it is well-known, sometimes engage in the related practice of “best athlete” hiring. Schools that undertake “best athlete” searches aren’t looking for fill specific substantive needs, but are instead bound — if at all — only by the mandate that they hire raw talent.

In the spirit of this older post about a Fantasy Law School League, what would a law faculty combine look like? I mean the question both in its obvious semi-serious sense, but also in a MoneyLaw sense. . . . [W]hat tests should “best athlete” faculty candidates be made to run, who should run them, and where and when should they take place?
This is a fun parlor game, and there are at least two ways to play. The first is to run drills that emulate law school teaching and legal scholarship. The second is to imagine the types of skills that lead to superlative academic performance (however you choose to define that) and then to imagine tests that would test those skills.

Read the rest of this post . . . .Mike Madison's original post hints at ways to run industry-specific skills. In commentary to Mike's post, fellow Madisonian blogger Frank Pasquale, despite his "dislike [of] anything that makes the enterprise more “game-like,” offered these suggestions:
  • Construct a syllabus incorporating a new pedagogical technique. (note–interviewers could learn a lot from this, too!)

  • From Bowie to Thomas Kuhn: Assess whether your field is in a state of “normal science,” or needs to undergo a “paradigm shift.” If the former, how do your projects contribute to answering the key questions. If the latter, what new questions need to be asked?

  • Write a blog post about some news item from the past thirty days that shows how your work illuminates the issues raised in the news item.
I agree with Frank that "the Kuhn question is the key one because it highlights how different academia is from a game" and with Jeff Lipshaw that "much of life consists not in playing a particular game well, but figuring out what game you’re playing."

Lecturing professorFrank Pasquale's suggestions drive at the core of what it means to evaluate rookie talent in legal academia. We need people who can organize classes for the benefit of students, identify and perhaps even challenge conventional wisdom, and communicate in a variety of contexts. I confess, though, that my immediate reaction to Mike's original post contemplated an altogether different format for legal academia's rookie combine. I contemplated tests of pure, raw intelligence.

This is where my knowledge of football got in the way. The NFL combine consists of fourteen distinct drills:
  1. 40 yard dash
  2. Bench press
  3. Vertical jump
  4. Broad jump
  5. 3 cone drill
  6. 20 yard shuttle
  7. 60 yard shuttle
  8. Position specific drills
  9. Physical measurements
  10. NFL team interviews
  11. Wonderlic test (intelligence)
  12. Cybex test (flexibility)
  13. Injury evaluation
  14. Urine test
Relative to baseball's infamous 270-foot dash (yes, the one Billy Beane won the year he entered Major League Baseball's rookie draft), the NFL combine's drills come closer to measuring the skills that matter in that sport. Tests of speed, agility, strength, and intelligence dominate the combine.

Long ago I speculated about ways in which legal academia might assess the multiple intelligences of would-be rookie professors. I had in mind the work of Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind (1983) and Intelligence Reframed (1999). Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences identifies eight distinct dimensions of intelligence:
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Musical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Spatial
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist
CombineAt one level, Frank Pasquale's more logical interpretation of legal academia's rookie combine makes more sense. Identify the complex tasks we need to perform — akin, perhaps, to cut-blocking, bull-rushing, or route-running — and design tests that tests the full complex of skills. But Jeff Harrison has lamented, in ways I appreciate, that the usual tests of aptitude seem to yield a large number of legal academics who are neither intellectually interesting (as a static matter) nor intellectually curious enough (as a dynamic matter) to make better teachers and smarter colleagues of themselves.

So, I continue to wonder. When we evaluate rookie talent, should we do so on the basis of the applicants' ability to perform complex tasks approximating what veteran academics are expected to do? Or should we take aim at raw intelligence? In an ideal world, where neither football teams nor their scouts nor workers in less physically exhilarating enterprises are ever "on the clock," I suspect that we'd measure both.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not that it matters very much but I think some of the "scouting" ideas and metaphors are off here. In baseball, at least, when a team says they are drafting for "best athlete" they usually just mean they are not looking for a particular position, not that they are looking for someone who has done the best on an "objective skills" test. And even though the NFL combine test would seem to better measure skills than a more narrow test, it's still not what Beane, for example, though should be looked at- this would be an example of looking at "tools" in baseball talk, while he thought you should look at "results"- not if someone was fast and strong so much as if they had, say, hit will in college. The skills measured in the combine are, of course, strongly associated with success in the NFL, but the money-ball approach would be to look past those for over-looked talent that doesn't stand out and use that to your advantage. It seems to me that the "traditional credentials" of law school hires (Yale/Harvard, Law Review, Fancy Clerkship) are the equivalent of the NFL combine while the money-law approach would be to search out those talents who don't excel in those areas but otherwise show that they will likely be good, hire these people, and the get the rewards. Again, the direct comparison with the sports issue doesn't matter much, I think, except that it seems to get the parallel wrong to me.

2/27/2008 8:45 PM  

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