Moneyball, women and law

Google my name and you’ll find I’ve written a few things about baseball, mostly during my time as a co-founder of and contributor to Batter’s Box, a top-notch Canadian baseball blog. As it happens, one of my favourite baseball books (outside of Thomas Boswell’s and Bill James’s works) isn’t really, I don’t think, about the game at all. Moneyball, a Michael Lewis best-seller about the innovative team-building strategy of the Oakland A’s, is, to my mind, a business book that happens to be about baseball.

If you’ve read Moneyball, you might agree with me that its fundamental lesson is the importance of identifying undervalued assets in a marketplace and stocking up on them before the competition figures out what you’re doing. The A’s front-office combo of Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta figured out that players who reached base a lot contributed as much as or more to victories than did players with more dramatic talents (e.g., stealing bases), yet commanded much lower salaries.

For a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, it was a no-brainer for Oakland to pursue the high-value, low-regard personnel, even in the face of derision from richer teams who favoured highlight-reel players. And that’s just what they did. In the result, the A’s were one of the winningest teams of the late ’90s, equalling the performance of New York Yankee clubs with five times their payroll.

It wasn’t a perfect story: Beane conceded that his, um, “stuff” didn’t work in the playoffs, and some of the young players most highly touted in the book never fulfilled what the A’s expected of them. But other teams vindicated this strategy by starting to follow his approach, so Beane switched gears — he began targeting top defensive players as his next “market inefficiency” to exploit. Today, the A’s, when healthy, continue to be a perennial contender.

Looking for the law connection? Others have found it before now: the Moneylaw blog is a great example, as is a terrific blog titled Empirical Legal Studies, which challenges conventional wisdom in the law through the careful application of metrics and reason. Ever since I read Moneyball, I’ve been interested in identifying inefficiencies in the legal talent marketplace.

One of the most obvious is women lawyers, especially those in their 30s and 40s, who are driven out of many law firms by relentless billing demands and inflexible workplace cultures. (I touched on this last year in a comment at Adam Smith, Esq.). Women lawyers in this demographic are just as, if not more, talented and driven than those lawyers willing or able to put up with law firm demands, lawyers whom firms fall over each other to recruit and retain. Law firms’ inability to adjust their business models to take advantage of this available talent and drive is, above all, a real source of shame for the law. But it’s also a gigantic market inefficiency.

Smart law firms should zero in on the best women lawyers in this age range, those whose firms have rejected them because they don’t fit the prevailing culture and billing structure. They could install a full-time day care center on the ground floor, create a flex-time policy that actually delivers flexible time, replace billable hour targets with more sophisticated financial and client satisfaction metrics, and preside over a very happy and financially healthy firm. Instead of paying higher and higher salaries to unproven first-year graduates, firms could be spending their time and money getting to know proven, experienced women lawyers who can deliver tremendous value to clients.

Happily, it seems a few firms are finally adopting a Moneyball approach to women lawyers. An article in today’s New York Law Journal talks about law firms getting in touch with women lawyers seeking to return to practice. There’s a lot of good information in the story, including advice for re-entering women lawyers and links to programs like Skadden Arps’ Sidebar. Courtesy of Bruce again, here’s another link to an excellent ABA program called Back to Business.

If you’re a managing partner and want to take advantage of this market inefficiency, move fast: the wraps are coming off, and pretty soon everyone will reach the conclusion that should have been obvious from the first: when the traditional talent pool starts shrinking, think outside the pool.

And with that, I wish you a happy International Women’s Day. And, Go Jays Go.


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