A front-page article in the Friday New York Times raises the issue of the divide between science and humanities. Lurking here a lesson for lawyers. 

In 500 Billion Words, New Window on Culture describes Google’s recently released Books Ngram Viewer, which analyzes how often phrases occur in the world’s books over the years. The article is less about N-Gram, however, than it is about the divide between disciplines:

“Despite the frequent resistance to quantitative analysis in some corners of the humanities, [one of the scientists involved] said he was confident that the use of this and similar tools would ‘become universal.’ Reactions from humanities scholars who quickly reviewed the article were more muted.”

The scientists seek to “demonstrate how vast digital databases can transform our understanding of language, culture and the flow of ideas.” They applied “high turbo data analytics” to humanities questions in what they coin “culturomics”. For example, “they found technological advances took, on average, 66 years to be adopted by the larger culture in the early 1800s and only 27 years between 1880 and 1920”. The article suggests humanists cannot cope with data.

The legal market faces a similar divide between disciplines. Law focuses on text, business on numbers. Lawyers look for small subsets of cases to find distinctions and similarities; business people look for large amounts data to find trends. Lawyers solve one narrow problem, business people broad problems.

The divide is not just academic, as both an anecdote and a recently published survey illustrate. First, my anecdote: The immediate reaction from a senior corporate associate when I suggested learning spreadsheets: “Ron, you don’t understand. The reason I went to law school is so that I would not have to deal with numbers.” (OK. Perhaps that explains investment bankers earnings relative to lawyers.)

Anecdotes add up to data: The Third Annual Law Department Operations Survey, a December 2010 joint publication of InsideCounsel and the Blickstein Group found that “[f]ewer than half of the respondents have a formalized metrics / reporting program.”

With the cost pressures GCs face, the lack of metrics is damning. Once I might have latched onto time or budget constraints to explain the lacuna. Now I think it is discipline divide. Lawyers just do not focus on numbers and management. Like the humanists the the Times article, lawyers sit on the side while the business managers crunch the data to see what’s really happening.

The difference, however, is that practicing lawyers hold power and make key decisions. A week of MBA-type classes some law firms provide for lawyers does not overcome a lifetime spent avoiding data. Professional managers in large law firms have become more business minded (and have several MBA programs they can attend) but ultimately they have much less power than partners.

We need to bridge the lawyer divide between text and number. Doing so might go further than many other current initiatives meant to reduce costs and improve legal performance.

[Two minor points on the above:
1. The law departments metrics lacuna is bleaker than it seems: I assume that the LDO survey goes to law departments with a Director of Legal Operations position, So it self-selects for those companies that are more advanced in managing the law department and therefore are more likely to have metrics. A reasonable inference is that the percent of all law departments using metrics is even lower.
2. The text v. numbers and cases v. data-crunching reasoning divides may well affect our view of the law itself. Will practicing lawyers rush to analyze what we might infer from changes in word and phrase occurrence over time? Not many but at least one so far. Trends in Law, as Seen By Google’s Ngram by Bob Ambrogi illustrates the power of Google’s new tool for legal analysis. See his graphs for phrase pairs such as “law firm partner, law firm associate” and “intellectual property law, securities law, corporate finance” trend over time. Very interesting.]