The 80/20 Principle

ParetoPareto originated the so-called 80/20 principle in the early 1900s after observing that 80% of the wealth in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.  For a century, innumerable observers have found that the 80/20 pattern, also dubbed the “vital few/trivial many rule,” recurs across many distributions.

Businesses tend to generate 80% of sales from 20% of their products and 80% of their profits from 20% of their customers.  Managers can use the tool to think about operations and allocating resources.  In book publishing, eighty percent of promotional resources are dedicated to twenty percent of the list.

The principle applies among law firms, where twenty percent of clients contribute eighty percent of billings. Firms can use the insight to improve in many ways. For example, it can help partners decide which clients to nurture or fire  or how paralegals should allocate their time.

The concept can be refined for any number of time management tasks, as popularized by Richard Koch’s 1998 book, and in The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris (some notable tips from which Jeff Yates collected a few years ago at The Faculty Lounge).

The concept is not a precise measure nor a universal constant. For example, in America today, 20 percent of the population owns something more like 95% of the wealth. And the insight does not yield to prescriptive policy manuals. It is instead a way of thinking about resource allocation that can improve one’s effectiveness.

I wonder, among law professors, in what ways does the 80/20 rule manifest?  Here are some alluring candidates:

Eighty percent of law professors were trained at twenty percent of the nation’s law schools.

Do eighty percent of a prawf’s citations come from twenty percent of their articles?

Are eighty percent of your downloads on SSRN from twenty percent of your posted pieces?

Are twenty percent of law professors responsible for eighty percent of legal academic blogging, as Eric Goldman once forecast?

Do eighty percent of valuable classroom contributions come from only twenty percent of your students?

What other questions might this apply to for law professors? And what are the implications?

For one, being aware of the phenomenon can help define the activities that matter the most and allocate scarce productive resources on those.  Reflect upon what is special about the twenty percent of your scholarship yielding the vast majority of its influence.   Is it subject matter, methodology, orientation, clarity?  If twenty students in your 100-person classroom pull most of the weight, what should you do about that? Is it necessary to draw the rest in or capitalize on the phenomenon in some other way?

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting to see that the 80/20 principle still holds in our modern world. But I think one can argue that the balance of wealth is shifting to an increasingly small number of people, threatening the balance of what’s just and fair (if those things still truly exist).

  2. There have been a number of documented examples of the way in which legal systems tend toward power law and other similar extremely skewed distributions.

    The Web of the Law

    How Long is the Coastline of Law? Thoughts on the Fractal Nature of Legal Systems

    Reproduction of Hierarchy? A Social Network Analysis of the American Law Professoriate

    Hustle and Flow: A Social Network Analysis of the American Federal Judiciary

  3. Thomas Gibbons says:

    I also find the idea interesting in the context of property law. 20% of our theory covers 80% of what property is. The other 20% of what property is – the margins – requires 80% of our theoretical attention