The Last Moneyball Article: Rethinking Law Firm Talent Acquisition

You’ve probably seen the movie by now, and you might even have read the book; in either case, you’ve likely seen the clear potential for the application of Moneyball principles to the legal market. Several smart observers (and one not-so-smart) have already seen it and written about it, including Paul Lippe, Patrick J. Lamb, Lisa Salazar, and the good folks at Lawyer Metrics and the Harvard Business Review. I recommend all these articles to you and encourage you to adopt the “thinking differently” approach that they embody.

For myself, I want to write what will probably be the last law-related Moneyball article for a while, in order to touch on two subjects. First, and briefly, will be the shortcomings of Moneyball theory. The second, at more length, will be the most obvious application of Moneyball principles to the law, which relates to the assessment and acquisition of talent.

For the record, I’m very much a believer in the overall theme of Moneyball, which is that rethinking traditional practices in light of new metrics and philosophies is a powerful recipe for game-changing innovation within your organization. But the movie doesn’t always do justice to the book (nor should it be expected to), and the book doesn’t always do justice to reality.

Many of Beane’s counter-intuitive “we’re not selling jeans here” amateur draft picks, for example, came to very little — or at least, less than would be expected from the high positions at which they were drafted. In addition, many baseball people will argue persuasively that three young pitchers named Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito — drafted according to traditional assessment principles — had much more to do with the A’s success than Scott Hatteberg ever did. There are other nits that could be picked, but my overall point here is not to buy up all the available hype about Moneyball.

That said, and this is my second point, there really is a great deal that every organization, and especially a law firm, could take from Billy Beane’s approach. To my mind, the most obvious — and I’m frankly surprised that no one has so far explored this — is in the same area in which Beane went to war with his own scouting department: talent recruitment. Law firms do many things less well than the business world in general, but perhaps nothing so poorly as identifying talented new graduates coming out of law schools.

Ask your average law firm what they’re looking for when they go into law schools to find new articling students or associates, and they’ll give you depressingly similar answers: high academic achievers who present well in high-pressure interview situations. It doesn’t seem to occur to law firms that every other firm is looking for the same traits, such that they are collectively piling tremendous demand into a small supply of talent and inevitably pushing up its price (and eliminating the chance that different skill sets and life experiences will enter their firms).

It also doesn’t seem to occur that they’re making a startling number of assumptions in this process. They assume that good marks in law school courses are a direct indicator of high intelligence easily adaptable to a law firm environment, when in fact the only thing high law school marks indicate is the student’s ability to score well in law school courses, something they will never be called upon to do in a law firm. Nor does it seem to occur that the very courses in which firms seek students with high marks are the same courses that they and their firms routinely disparage as being irrelevant to the legal practice world.

Firms also assume that law schools themselves have done a good job of screening candidates during the admission process, even though I doiubt one lawyer in a hundred could tell you much about the admissions policies and practices of the three law schools from which they draw the most new lawyers. And most disturbingly, firms assume that the “status” or “prestige” of a given law school is a direct indicator of the quality of the lawyers that schools graduates. “Lesser” law schools — and firms define these schools pretty much identically — are given second- or third-class status in the minds of interviewers and hiring partners.

Law firms have perfected the art of identifying high-achieving graduates from prestigious law schools. But they have made no progress in specifically identifying great lawyers at the start of their careers who have the best chance of contributing tremendous value to the firm for the next 5 to 25 years. That must surely be the result they want; but that result has no verifiable causative relationship with the processes they’re now employing.

What would a Moneyball approach to “drafting” new legal talent look like? Here are a few ideas.

1. Identify precisely what qualities you’re looking for. Do you want your firm filled with people who know how to score an A on a three-hour 100% final exam and who can rattle off good answers to interview questions? Or do you want your firm filled with hard-working, assertive, self-starting lawyers who can reasonably be forecast to bring value as both associates and partners? If it’s the second outcome you’re seeking (and I can only guess that’s the right answer), why in the world are you screening for the former while collecting virtually no data on the latter?

2. Create measures by which you can identify these qualities. Here are some characteristics I would want to see in a new associate: work experience prior to law school (ideally in a small-business environment); demonstrated examples of leadership in small-group settings; extraordinary written and spoken communication skills; cross-cultural experience (ideally with a second or third language thrown in); and a knack for prioritizing and managing multiple demands. That looks to me like the profile of an outstanding partner in the year 2026. It’s not hard to detect these qualities; all you have to do is look for them, ask for them, and test for them.

3. Examine your assumptions about law school prestige. Too many law firms focus on the “best” schools (by which they actually mean the most well-known schools, or perhaps those from which certain partners graduated), failing to consider the excellent talent that can be found in virtually every law school nationwide. Does a top student at a “lower-tier” law school demonstrably have less potential to become an outstanding lawyer than a mediocre student at an “upper-tier” law school? No metrics support that contention, yet firms behave is if it’s a proven axiom.

I’ve written before about the preponderance of “belief-based” rather than “reality-based” behaviour within law firms, and it seems to me that talent identification and acquisition fits nicely into the former category. The steps and approaches I’ve outlined above don’t require much more work to implement; but they do require a degree of courage to change the way things are done after years of always doing them a certain way. Finding and acting on that courage is the real message of Moneyball, and there’s no better place to start than in the legal profession’s version of baseball’s amateur draft.


  1. Professor Bill Henderson at Indiana University’s law school has been the leading light on this exact topic. I hope he does not mind my commenting in public, but Bill has been working with major law firms to help facilitate the kind of qualitative “Moneyball” changes you suggest. Good stuff. I always enjoy your work, and I concur with you and Professor Henderson on this thinking.