Outliers: WASP and Jewish Lawyers

The Brooklyn Law School Library has added to its collection Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (Call # BF637.S8 G533 2011). The book identifies the qualities of successful people including the cultural, family, and idiosyncratic factors that can have a decisive impact on shaping high achievers. The book’s major theme is that success is shaped by environment, not genetics. The opening chapter uses the accidental birth dates of Canadian hockey leagues players to predict successful hockey players favoring players with January birthdays over those with September birthdays. The 299 page book, divided into Part One: Opportunity and Part Two: Legacy, addresses why some people succeed and other do not and has fascinating stories about the hidden factors for success in stories about hockey players, Jewish lawyers, computer billionaires, and Asian math students. Gladwell points out the complexities of success. The real truth is probably much more complex than the author suggests.

The chapter titled The Three Lessons of Joe Flom deals with successful trial lawyers. The author describes the New York law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz which does not bill by the hour. It simply names a fee as shown in the story of when Kmart was defending against a hostile takeover and the firm quoted a flat fee of $20 million. The portrait of a group of eminent New York Jewish lawyers, all of whom were born around 1930 is interesting. The author states that this accident of birth date gave them several distinct advantages. Thanks to demographic shifts, they went to under populated public schools, where they received more attention from teachers. They were then able to get inexpensive college and legal educations. Barred from mainstream firms, they were forced to specialize in proxy fights, an area of law that mainstream lawyers in which mainstream lawyers did not engage. This, in turn, gave them a huge competitive advantage 20 years later when hostile takeovers began to sweep across the corporate landscape. The chapter cites The Rise and Fall of the WASP and Jewish Law Firms by Eli Wald, 60 Stan. L. Rev. 1803 (2007-2008) a law review article well worth reading. Whether the book Outliers: The Story of Success offers any predictive measure of future success is questionable. It seems impossible to predict that postwar Jewish lawyers would be rewarded for their expertise 20 years down the road. Success, in these instances, may have been a product of luck.