“Sports remain a great metaphor for life’s more difficult lessons.” — author Susan Casey
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series.
I had lunch recently with a lawyer who had been a standout athlete. The conversation underscored a realization, based on almost 30 years in the legal profession, that many of the most successful partners, CEOs, general counsel and law firm leaders who I have worked with have athletic backgrounds. Very few of these lawyers were Olympians, professionals or college All-Americans; the common thread was that they played team sports in their youth, often at the high school level (or higher).
Interestingly, a study, “The Effects of High School Athletic Participation on Education and Labor Market Outcomes,” by John M. Barron, Bradley T. Ewing and Glen R. Waddell, published in The Review of Economics and Statistics, discusses the advantages that result from playing sports. The authors analyzed a series of surveys that were completed by American males who attended high schools in the 1970s. They found that: (1) high school athletes achieved a higher level of education (by 25-35 percent) and had higher wages (by 12-31 percent) than nonathletes; (2) college graduates who were high school athletes earned higher wages than their fellow collegiate grads who eschewed playing sports; and (3) athletes also achieved more than high school peers who were active in other extracurricular activities, such as government, theater and band, but skipped playing sports.
There are, of course, many successful lawyers who could not participate in sports due to physical and other limitations. There also are legions who are among the profession’s elite and devoted time to pursuits other than distinguishing the difference between a cutter and curveball, a flag pattern and a skinny post, and how to box out when a basketball is in the air. Nevertheless, although I have not formally studied the phenomenon, my anecdotal impression is that an athletic background is often an important factor in a lawyer’s success. I will discuss 10 of the most common attributes of those athlete-lawyers and hope that they provide some guidance. In this month’s column, the first five characteristics are addressed.
1. Confidence is king.
It takes a lot of confidence to step into the arena or onto the field or court, especially when others are watching. A simple misstep can be embarrassing and can have long-term consequences, particularly during our youth. Once an athlete is in the game, confidence is often the great differentiator, as skill disparities among competitors lessen, especially at higher levels. Self-assurance can sometimes give a competitor the edge over an opponent who may be more talented, but lacks the conviction to really go for it at a critical time in a contest.
All of these characteristics carry over to the legal profession. It similarly takes a high degree of confidence to try a tough case, advise a client to proceed down a less-than-obvious path, or to lead a firm or legal department. The profession is rife with highly intelligent and accomplished people who are separated, if at all, by razor-thin margins. Quite often, the key differentiator among them is not IQ, LSAT score, hourly rate or pedigree — it is the confidence that they display in all that they do.
2. Teamwork wins.
At the risk of dating myself, one of my favorite series of books in my childhood was the Chip Hilton collection, which regaled the reader with Chip’s many sports travails and triumphs. While each book was exciting to read, it also imparted lessons, which, for children of my generation, have stuck with many of us throughout our lives.
In one such book, Chip was dribbling the basketball toward the hoop as mere seconds remained in the last game of the season. A win would give the championship to Chip’s team, while just one more bucket by him would give Chip the season scoring title. One of Chip’s teammates was wide open under the basket, while Chip was still more than 15 feet from the hoop — should he pass the ball (and maximize the chances of the team winning) or should he shoot (thereby also giving him a chance for personal acclaim)? Chip, of course, sacrificed personal glory for that of the team and passed the ball to his teammate, who made the winning shot.
Team sports teach athletes the importance of interdependence, as without everyone pulling together, it is almost impossible to win, no matter how great one player may be. This does not mean that individual excellence is not important, as there are many times when a team needs someone like Chip to have the courage to take a last-minute shot when circumstances so dictate. Team sports help to instill the vital sense of learning when it is important for one to step up with the game on the line versus supporting someone else who is better positioned to help the team at the key moment.
Although practicing law is certainly more nuanced and sophisticated than playing basketball, the principles that underlie team success are the same. Organizations of all types encourage and want their lawyers to succeed, not only for the firm or company, but for themselves, too, as everyone wins in such a scenario. Nonetheless, this needs to be done within a team framework, as even the most talented lawyer may find himself or herself isolated, and eventually off the team, if he or she can’t learn to pass the ball to others at appropriate times.
3. Preparation pays off.
Practice (and even more practice) is deeply ingrained in the culture of sports. Successful sports teams are loathe to just “wing it,” as innumerable studies have demonstrated the benefits of practice. Much practice time is devoted to skill development (especially building muscle memory), rehearsing plays and generally learning how to develop rapport with teammates.
The overarching goal of all this practice is to enable athletes to be ready for upcoming contests. The better that one is prepared, the more it allows you to freely unleash your skills during games and to minimize those times when you have to hesitate after seeing something for the first time. I recently shared a grade school football scouting report that I remarkably still had with a local CEO who had played on a rival team. He shook his head in amazement at the detail in the report (and the focus on him) and better understood why our underdog squad had pulled off a big upset many years ago.
Preparation is the hallmark of a great lawyer; it thus should be no surprise, then, that former athletes instinctively acclimate themselves well to this facet of the practice of law. For example, top litigators spend considerable time preparing for depositions and trial, as they hope to minimize surprises and to find the cracks in a case that they can exploit. Advance planning, competitive analyses and other forms of research permeate all aspects of the profession, and are second nature to athletes, as they were an integral part of their athletic experience.
4. Perseverance is a virtue.
The annals of sports are replete with the stories of athletes whose resolve, whether it entailed overcoming hardships or simply persevering against long odds, enabled them to eventually taste success. Athletes’ bodies develop at different rates, which requires some to experience a lot of humility before they reach maturity. There is no better example of this than Michael Jordan, who was initially cut from his high school varsity basketball team and was required to spend his sophomore year toiling in obscurity on the JV team.
If players received a dollar for every time they were urged by coaches to “hang in there,” many would have been flush with cash. Even the most gifted athletes experience stretches in games when their magic touch seemingly vanishes; the elixir, as they know, is to keep plugging away, as history has shown them that their super powers will eventually return.
Athletes learn to persevere through all types of situations. For some, it entails practicing at odd hours, in challenging conditions (such as inclement weather), and at times, especially if they are not starting, when it would be much easier to quit. For others, it involves playing with teammates they otherwise would not want to spend time with off the field or for coaches they do not necessarily like. In each situation, stick-to-itiveness is the common trait that enables them to work through each of these challenges.
There are quite a few parallels to the practice of law, as perseverance is a characteristic of successful attorneys. Just as some athletes develop at different rates, there are lawyers who may be overshadowed by colleagues early, but eventually eclipse them when they hit their stride. Lawyers also endure slumps (for example, when it seems that a new matter or client may never surface) and have to slog through a case or deal that seems destined to be a loser, in the hope that their dogged determination will eventually turn the tide.
5. Goals fuel success.
Goal-setting is the essence of sports; quite simply, goals are critical targets that drive teams, coaches and players. These come in all flavors, and, for individuals, can be as simple as running a 40-yard dash at a prescribed pace, or as exotic as mastering a maneuver that no one has ever tried. Team goals are typically more straightforward and are normally focused on one overriding objective: winning.
The challenge, which separates winning teams from losers, and great team players from me — first performers, is how to mesh personal goals with those of the team. In essence, it is the re-enactment of Chip Hilton’s last-second decision, which arises in many different contexts throughout a game and season.
All facets of the legal profession are now ruled by goals — simply doing good work, in ways that can’t be measured, no longer cuts it in our business-driven world. In law firms, these goals may involve hours, receipts, originations, realization or other statistics that only a sabermetrician could truly analyze. In corporations, government and other settings, strict objectives and other quantifiable goals are the targets that help to drive performance. In each of these cases, benchmarks of all types now are integral parts of practicing.
Stay tuned, as, next month, we’ll examine the final five attributes that, if incorporated into your practice, should help you on the road to success. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.