The New Normal

Where Are the Legal Jeremy Lins?

Posted Mar 13, 2012 9:49 AM CDT
By Paul Lippe

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The best news of the last decade has been the emergence of Jeremy Lin as the point guard of the Knicks. It's good news because his style of play makes the whole team better, because he confounded expectations, and because he is a decent, hardworking, humble human being. (Full disclosure: Jeremy’s younger brother played with my son for several years, where Jeremy helped out the team. I hope he’ll marry one of my daughters before becoming president, and I am a longtime Harvard basketball fan, so I make no claim of objectivity.)

Although Jeremy had a very solid track record in high school and college—he captained his high school team to a California state championship and outplayed several future NBAers in college—27 teams in the NBA never bothered to hire him even at Sam’s Club prices, two hired him and fired him, and one (the Knicks) just barely gave him a chance, and he quickly outperformed expectations. This in a sport where properly judging talent is as central and transparent as in any field of human endeavor, with a total focus on the bottom line (everybody understood that an Asian-American star would be good for that bottom line).

Of course, Jeremy is smallish, from an Ivy League school and not the usual look of a basketball player. But the beauty of basketball—the integrity of sport—is that once he was on the floor, his performance could trump preconceptions. Everyone can look not just at what Jeremy is doing on the floor, but how it is positively influencing his teammates and what the outcome is on the scoreboard. And when the Knicks lose or Lin plays poorly, his performance can be analyzed, not his just reputation.

How often in law do we look at what really happens with something we do (outcomes), versus how much we do and what other lawyers think? As a result, we have too few Jeremy Lins: too few lawyers who can confound expectations and deliver outcomes rooted in truly superior performance. We also have few tools for leaders like managing partners, deans and general counsel to try to shift culture, because there is little they can point to as driving superior performance. So we end up with what might be called the Gladwell effect, where reputation drives reputation.

In the retail world, “everybody knew” that service was generally mediocre and only getting worse; yet somehow Apple came along with the Apple stores delivering a confounding level of superior performance. In airlines, “everybody knew” we were in a declining service spiral, until Virgin America came along and showed the experience could be dramatically better.

Neither Apple nor Virgin succeeded by hiring the best and the brightest (a phrase that a Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam used facetiously in his book by that name), but by starting with a focus on how the customer’s experience could be better.

There are lots of different models in today’s world for talking about performance or quality. In manufacturing, we talk about Six Sigma or Lean. In the pharmaceutical industry, drugs are evaluated for safety, efficacy, and increasingly, cost-effectiveness. In law we often measure money, but not too many people would argue that a bigger box office for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen proves that it is a better movie than Dr. Zhivago.

Measuring performance is tricky in any field, trickier in services than in hard goods, and perhaps trickier in law than other services. For my money, the most relevant model for law is outcomes research being developed in medicine, led by Dr. Harlan Krumholz at Yale Medical School. Just as in law, medicine started out by worrying about costs, which led many to assert that any attempt to evaluate costs would put quality (outcomes) at risk, which led to a much more robust assessment of outcomes and what drives them (it turns out better outcomes are frequently less expensive).

Harlan quotes a Science magazine's definition of outcomes research: “the study of the end results of health services that takes patients’ experiences, preferences, and values into account—is intended to provide scientific evidence relating to decisions made by all who participate in health care.”

He then writes: “The growing body of work that questioned the safety, effectiveness, efficiency, equity, patient-centeredness, and timeliness of current strategies to promote health and health care was leading to calls for increased accountability and innovation.”

The beauty of medicine is the integrity of science: Regardless of what doctors think, the real test is what happens inside the human body—outcomes trump preconceptions. And that’s why medical treatment advances.

As part of their effort to re-engage with the profession, it’s time for law schools catch up to their medical peers to help develop research models that determine what styles of practice represent the legal Jeremy Lins so students and practitioners can develop those attributes and practices that lead to better outcomes.


Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

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