How is Tom Barr Like Shane Battier: Or, Measuring Individuals’ Roles in Group Success

hls faculty.jpgMichael Lewis recently published a Times Magazine story on NBA player Shane Battier. The article is largely an anecdotally driven portrait of Battier, a player who supposedly makes his teammates better and opposing players worse, while engrossing few individual gains. But the Houston Rockets, who employ Battier, recognize his value, because they’ve finally cracked the nut of regressing success in group sports. According to Lewis, the Rockets use a sophisticated plus-minus measure:

One well-known statistic the Rockets’ front office pays attention to is plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court. In its crude form, plus-minus is hardly perfect: a player who finds himself on the same team with the world’s four best basketball players, and who plays only when they do, will have a plus-minus that looks pretty good, even if it says little about his play. Morey says that he and his staff can adjust for these potential distortions — though he is coy about how they do it — and render plus-minus a useful measure of a player’s effect on a basketball game. A good player might be a plus 3 — that is, his team averages 3 points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. In his best season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. At the time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him in the company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both perennial All-Stars. For his career he’s a plus 6. “Plus 6 is enormous,” Morey says. “It’s the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.”

The problem with the article is that it offers no perspective at all on how the Rockets tweak the statistic to make it useful and a competitive advantage. In that sense, the piece could be thought of as Moneyball III: This Time With No Data and No Human Interest. (Moneyball Had Data; Blind Side had a compelling story; this piece is unripe on both fronts.)

Nevertheless, in some quarters Lewis’s work has again caught the attention of legal innovators. Jim Chen, who has already opined that Deans should use a version of plus-minus to evaluate faculty performance, suggests that Battier is a promising case study: “the single factor that makes a great team player is the mirror image of the single factor that turns even the most productive scholar into a toxic Arschloch: selfishness.” To which an astute commentator responded: “If anything, a stats-driven evaluation process will almost certainly lead to the Battiers of academia being under-rewarded, rather than the reverse. Wouldn’t it be enough to reward those who just seem to distinguish themselves by their selflessness? . . . Note that, even within the NBA — in which it is much easier to do a plus/minus assessment — Battier gets undervalued by most teams, and if he weren’t still riding a six year contract would probably get paid a lot less even by the Rockets.”

I’ve thought some about the problem of motivating good faculty performance. On the one hand, notwithstanding self-interested arguments to the contrary, merit-based pay systems are a good thing, as they punish real shirking. But as between faculty members who aren’t obviously checked out, merit evaluation is a bit tough. Chen suggests that we ought to reward selflessness, which sounds to me like a subsidy for the creation of public goods. But that suggests that we could identify selflessness in faculty conduct. Maybe the person who takes on administrative duties or summer teaching loads is selfless and needs a reward to compensate for giving up lateral opportunities. But maybe that faculty member hates writing or thinks s/he’s bad at it. It’s difficult to look behind actions to motives.

The problem with the Moneylaw approach to faculty rewards is that it has failed to fully define what universities are designed to maximize. That’s not an easy question to answer, obviously, and I don’t think there’s just one approach. For a few law schools, like Florida-Coastal, that answer is obvious: to make money. For others, law school’s function as a profit center within a larger university umbrella. (This is the cynical, but likely accurate, motive for the few recent start-up law schools within Universities.) But for most law schools, the ultimate criterion of faculty success is just unclear. Giving students a return on their investment is much of it, but it’s not the whole story, since tuition doesn’t pay nearly all the bills. We’ve responsibilities to alumni donors, to the State, to the Bar, etc. Shane Battier just needs to help his team win games. We don’t know what winning is. We don’t know what game we’re playing. And who’s our team again?

barr.jpgAll this suggests that the quantitative measurement of individual contributions to group success is a field of study that (a) is underdeveloped; and (b) may never yield dividends for faculty performance. The problem is that we’re left with even more imperfect measures, like citations and SSRN downloads. What we’d really want is a way to understand individuals’ roles in creating a firm-wide culture of competence. As Gulati and Choi found when studying the 7th Circuit, a particular hardworking judge may inspire others, even life-tenured others, to better performance. I was reminded in reading that paper, and in this more recent plus-minus debate, of a famous Cravath partner named Tom Barr.

Barr, a former marine, led CSM’s defense of IBM in the antitrust case of the last century. In so doing, he set the culture of the Firm for at least a generation (and probably more.) He coined the term “beachmaster” for the young attorney who would manage day-to-day operations at trial. (Based on the analogous marine role). He also created (I think) the self-image of the modern CSM lawyer: hungry for more work, intense to the point of obsession, honest with the Court, and very well paid. If the business model is dying, maybe it’s because Barr isn’t around at most firms to create the kind of culture that justifies and coordinates the madness. I’m sure Barr was an tremendous biller, but if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered, since he created a larger culture that made money. And he wasn’t selfless: he was just good, and he inspired others to greatness.

(Image Source: The Green Bag, HLS Faculty in 1968).

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4 Responses

  1. Jason Solomon says:

    Interesting post, Dave — on the question of how to measure selfless faculty conduct for purpose of merit evaluation/salary, I can think of three measures to start: (1) number of feedback opportunities per class; (2) number of colleagues’ drafts read/written comments provided; and (3) number of recommendations written for students per year.

  2. Kaimi says:

    But Jason, if we start counting those things, then they become self-interested actions. And then what will we count?

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I got more than a litle lost at “firmwide culture of competence”. First, why is a law school like a firm? Are there better analogies? If we assume the analogy is apt in some way, would the boundaries of the firm be those of the law school, or of the university? And who are the members of the firm: faculty only, or a wider group, including students? It seems that only faculty performance is at issue here — but is it appropriate to consider a law school as a firm of faculty only?

    Next, what is the competence to be inculcated? and finally what is a “culture of competence”? Isn’t it a bit circular to define this in terms of inspiring others to “better performance”, if “creating a firm-wide culture of competence” is itself the definition of performance, as it seems to be in the post? I’m also not sure how (1) and (3) in Jason’s list would fall within that definition.

  4. Jason Solomon says:

    Good point, Kaimi — maybe we can then just go to number of words published in a law review that year, and alternate metrics every year. 🙂

    My serious answer is then we just get rid of the “selfless” piece of the definition, and we still have the kinds of incentives we want.