Opening in theaters everywhere this week is Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and written by (among others) Aaron Sorkin, a pedigree that should generate a moderate hit for a baseball movie. But the book upon which the film is based, Michael Lewis’s 2003 best-seller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, is really a business book—one that has lessons for lawyers.
Here’s a very simplified summary of the book: The Oakland A’s were one of baseball’s best teams for several years in the early 2000s despite having one of the game’s lowest payrolls. Forced into frugality, they hired analysts with Wall Street backgrounds to find inefficiencies in the baseball talent market that they could exploit with their limited dollars.
What they found was that other teams had never measured which skills actually contributed to winning ballgames, and so ended up spending money on the wrong types of players. The A’s did the math, ranked skills from most to least valuable, signed the players with the most undervalued highest-ranking skills, and became winners. (Until they met the Yankees in the playoffs, anyway, but that’s a story for the movie to tell.)
The A’s general manager, Billy Beane, encountered massive resistance from within his own organization when he tried to change the club’s approach to acquiring and developing talent. Obstinate scouts insisted that the way they’d always gone about assessing players was self-evidently the right way. (Sound familiar?)
The Question You Need to Ask
Baseball writer and editor Rob Neyer, in a recent interview about the book, identified what I think is the core message of the Moneyball philosophy that Beane tried to champion. “It’s about an intellectual idea,” says Neyer, “which is essentially: ‘If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?’”
That’s the question that every law practice, no matter how large or how small, needs to ask itself right now. If you weren’t already billing clients by the hour, is that how you would bill? If you weren’t already employing a full-time assistant on site, is that how you’d assign your administrative work? If you weren’t already serving your current client base, is this the client base (and practice area) you’d choose?
Sometimes the answers to those questions will be “Yes,” and that’s great, as long as you’ve articulated sensible and defensible reasons for continuing to do things the way you’ve done them before. But sometimes the answer will be “Maybe not,” or simply “No,” and that’s when you need the courage to take on the powerful inertia of your own organization and start doing things differently.
Billy Beane was up against rich ballclubs from big cities; lawyers today are up against tech-savvy innovators with deep pockets and new ideas. Maybe we’ve been thrown into an unfair game, too; but Moneyball proves that there’s an art to winning that game anyway, and this is where it starts.
Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He blogs at Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink.
Illustration © ImageZoo.