Moneyball for Attorneys 

Apr 27, 2022
Dr. Dennis Devine, Publications
Themevision Focus

Spring is here. For many sports fans, that means one thing in particular: Play ball!

The other day I watched a good “spring” movie—Moneyball. If you’re a fan of Brad Pitt or Jonah Hill, you would like it. If you follow baseball at all, you should see it. And if you’re a fan of winning legal cases, you might want to check it out for thought-provoking inspiration.

One scene from Moneyball really stands out to me. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s professional baseball team, and he’s taking stock of his team in the wake of a disappointing playoff loss. He’s in a war room full of grizzled, middle-aged baseball scouts—men with tons of experience whose job is to appraise talent. They’ve played the game for years, watched it for decades, and know what they know. Brad Pitt is trying to convince these guys there is a better way—and they are having none of it.

The scouts follow the traditional approach to evaluating players, which centers on measurement of core physical abilities and related baseball skills. How fast can a player run? What is the average exit velocity or launch angle of a batter’s hits? How hard can a pitcher throw? And then there are all the performance metrics—batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, stolen bases, errors, wins, earned run average, strikeouts, saves, and many others. There are many numbers to consider for every player—and years of experience are needed to understand, appreciate, and assimilate them.

Brad Pitt’s character wants to take a new approach. He previously thought like the scouts until Jonah Hill’s character (Peter Brand) enlightened him. Pete has an economics degree from Yale. He ran gazillions of analyses on baseball’s various statistics and found one—on-base percentage—that emerged as a player’s most important statistic when it comes to contributing to team wins. As it turns out, getting on base is really important to winning baseball games.

In the movie scene, Brad Pitt runs through a list of players to target, and the scouts become increasingly perplexed and aghast. Knowing every player’s weaknesses, their incredulous reaction to each successive name is: Why would we want him? And each time, Brad Pitt points to Jonah Hill who answers simply, “He gets on base.”

That’s the essence of Moneyball—collecting and analyzing data to determine what information is truly important, then using that information to make important decisions.

Attorneys developing legal strategy might find inspiration in Moneyball. It’s not difficult these days to gather data that shed light on a case via surveys, interviews, focus groups, simulations, or court records. Well-crafted studies can help forecast how a case will be perceived and what it’s likely to be worth. Statistical analyses can tell us which numbers—like on-base percentage in baseball—help predict case outcomes.

And the Moneyball approach is not just for cases going to trial. It works wherever data can be brought to bear on an important strategic question such as how a judge might rule on a motion, how a mediator could view the case, how a key witness might be perceived, or how the other side could approach negotiations. Useful data can be generated to inform the numerous strategic choices that emerge in most cases.

The idea of acting on valid data that fly in the face of what every expert “knows” to be true was radical at the time of Moneyball. It’s not anymore.

Dennis Devine is a Litigation Consultant with ThemeVision LLC.

He has published extensively in psychology and law journals and is the author of Jury Decision Making:  The State of the Science (2012), a book that summarizes the scientific research on juries and offers an integrative theory of jury decision making.

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