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Career Hot Streaks – do lawyers have them?

Posted on 10 June 2019

Career Hot Streaks – do lawyers have them?

In July 2018, Dashun Wang of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois published a research paper demonstrating that artists and scientists have career hot streaks, or short periods in which they produced their most significant work and achievements in quick succession. Wang's research also found that hot streaks can happen at any stage in one's career. He stated that "while the timing of most-successful works in a career is random, their relative timing is very predictable…Creative careers are characterised by bursts of high-impact works clustered together in sequence". Some striking examples referred to by Professor Wang were the year of 1905 for Einstein (aged 26) in which he published his theory of relativity, effectively invented quantum mechanics (which would lead to a Nobel prize) and published a paper on Brownian motion - establishing that heat is the movement of molecules. Equally striking were Van Gogh's achievements in 1888, when he produced many of his most memorable paintings including The Night Café, Starry Night Over the Rhone and Vase with Twelve Sunflowers.

There are probably more external variables that affect relative success in legal careers than in creative or scientific fields, but many lawyers would still recognise that career "hot streaks" exist. Professor Wang did delve into the legal profession to see if it conforms to his theory and we thought it might be interesting to look at The Lawyer's list of top cases for the past 10 years and see if we could extract any trends to support his conclusions.      

The number of times that particular firms appeared in the list of top cases often changed throughout the 10 year period we reviewed. There were some large stalwarts, particularly representing institutional clients, that appear regularly throughout the annual lists – even if only once in a year. At the other end of the spectrum, some of the most commonly occurring firms in more recent years did not even exist in 2010 (in London or at all). In between, there appears an identifiable, if small, trend of firms having more than one case – sometimes up to five cases – in the list for multiple years and then disappearing from the list again. These last two trends suggest to us a litigation "hot streak", even if less remarkable than those of Einstein or van Gogh. 

  • Hot Streak 1: it seems to us that the financial crisis brought new opportunities for claimant firms who were conflict free and also big-ticket instructions for what appears to be a smaller number of established firms that routinely represent large banks and institutional clients.   
  • Hot Streak 2: a spike in litigation involving oligarchs or Russian entities created a lot of high-profile cases for a relatively small number of firms that were lucky enough to obtain these instructions.   
  • Hot Streak 3: based on our review, it appears that a handful of individual partners managed a strong run of several high-profile cases in a relatively short period. 

As with Einstein and Van Gogh, it is impossible to ascertain whether each success arose independently or whether one lead to another, but the cluster effect stills appears to exist.  Wang's research suggests that genius results in a burst of high quality output. As a litigator, it was probably more a feature of being at the right maturity in your career and being in the right firm when the phone rang. However, success or involvement in one case may well have correlated into further instructions. Only time will tell if those firms or leading individuals are able to recreate their success or if their hot streak has run its course.

This analysis, although quite high-level, accords with most people's sense of the undulations of relative success in a legal career. From an individual's perspective, perhaps the more surprising and encouraging aspect is that a hot streak can occur at any stage.

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