"I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." — Michael Jordan
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series.
I have observed throughout my career that many of the most successful lawyers I know either play sports or have an athletic background. In last month’s column, five characteristics of athletes that merit emulation were discussed: (1) having confidence; (2) being a team player; (3) being prepared; (4) demonstrating perseverance; and (5) setting goals. The final five are analyzed below.
6. You can’t be afraid to take risks.
Athletes know that you can’t just play defense throughout a game or season. Sure, there may be times when going into a shell makes sense, such as when a contest is well in hand. There comes a time, though, in every game, when you have to go on the offensive, which often entails taking a risk. This can be uncomfortable for some, as it involves being the center of attention, and may have negative consequences if you don’t succeed, but it is an inherent part of sports.
The same principle applies to a legal career. For example, there often are situations in which the safe play is to give clients advice that comports with accepted wisdom, especially if that is also what they want to hear. If things go wrong, you likely will be off the hook for providing what seemed to be sound guidance. The best lawyers, though, much like star athletes, know when the time has come when you should go further. In such a situation, this may mean providing advice that suggests a novel or unpopular course of action, if you truly believe it is the right option. You must be ready to accept the consequences if you are wrong, but you’ll also put yourself in a preferred position when your counsel is proven to be correct.
7. Be a strategic player.
I am cognizant that "strategic," and other words such as "synergies" and "paradigm shift," are much overused terms. Nevertheless, there are situations in which this word is apropos. Thinking a step ahead, scouting opponents and devising game plans are central to sports. This holds true for activities in which brute force seems to be the driver (such as boxing or wrestling), as even athletes in those sports spend considerable time devising complex strategies before they step into a ring or onto a mat.
An oft-repeated mistake that I have seen lawyers and firms make is to not periodically "look up" to assess what lies ahead. This includes lawyers who are so hyper-focused on the work that continually lands on their desks that they neglect to look at where their practices are going. Good examples are Superfund or Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act lawyers who were caught behind the curve, and may not have recovered when market forces de-emphasized or even eliminated their practices.
In athletics, there are defined points at which strategic thinking is mandated, such as the next game, upcoming playoffs, or the next season. In law, there are some natural breakpoints, too — such as year-end — but you may have to create others to remind you to critically assess what lies ahead. The end of a major case or deal, or having lost a critical RFP could serve as such reassessment points. Do your best to use those milestones as times for self-reflection and game planning, as the dividends can be significant.
8. Be resilient.
Unless we are discussing Rocky Marciano, there are very few champion athletes who never tasted defeat. Athletes are often knocked down and defeated time and time again. After all, even a Hall of Fame baseball hitter fails to get a hit about 70 percent of the time throughout his career. Consequently, the hallmark of great athletes is the ability to bounce back even after the most devastating of defeats.
Lawyers should be no different. The associate who is passed over for partner, but knows, deep within, that he or she deserves to make it, needs to keep plugging away. The annals of law are replete with examples of lawyers who were initially passed over but ultimately made it and became key contributors. Similarly, litigation attorneys who are not afraid to try the toughest of cases, are likely to lose one (or perhaps a few) over the course of a long career. Not allowing those defeats to damage one’s confidence is crucial, but, not surprisingly, the lawyers who have the temerity to take those challenging cases to verdict typically are strong enough to bounce back to take on the next demanding case.
9. Stay motivated.
Motivation is an oft-discussed topic in professional sports. Is it incumbent upon a coach to motivate athletes or should that fire come from within? Why did Michael Jordan treat every practice, and even seemingly trivial contests (such as games of Horse) as if a championship were on the line, while other star players appear to lose their drive after signing big contracts?
There are no easy answers to those questions. It is my thesis, though, that the most successful athletes and lawyers derive most of their motivation from within. Coaches, managing partners, general counsel and CEOs often know how to spur a particular lawyer on to greater success. However, over time, and especially because a legal career can span four or more decades, the best lawyers find their motivation inside, particularly since those bosses will have changed many times over the years.
The interesting phenomenon that I have seen is that the most accomplished lawyers never lose their motivation. One may think that the biggest rainmakers, for example, can put it on cruise control once they reach that level, but the reality is that major producers are always fearful that the next big case or deal may not be on the horizon. If kept in check, this can be a healthy apprehension, which keeps you highly motivated. Managing partners can only dream that all of their lawyers had that same "problem."
Keeping those fires lit, especially over a long career, is a challenge. Staying fit, taking vacations, keeping one’s head clear on a daily basis (which can come through exercise, meditation, prayer or other activities), maintaining a strong family life, staying connected with other relatives and friends, and generally maintaining balance are some of the most important practices that help to avoid burnout. If you can keep yourself relatively fresh, the odds increase exponentially that you also can stay motivated.
10. Go for the win.
Quite a few children in recent generations played sports in leagues, especially in their early years, where they received trophies, ribbons and much praise simply for participating. Declaring a winner was almost verboten, as, heaven forbid, it could send the wrong signal to a youth who might actually taste defeat.
I, of course, am engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but some children who were reared in those environments received a comeuppance when the day came when winning actually mattered. In some cases, the winners had separated themselves because they were bigger, stronger and more gifted. In almost every case, though, no matter what the talent level was, the victors were the ones who were not afraid, quite simply, to go for the win. In essence, when the moment arrived, they were not content to just wait for a ribbon for participating; rather, they put it on the line and tried to win.
In law, the definition of a "win" is often more nuanced than it is in sports. For example, a defense lawyer who is on the "losing" end of a verdict in which $1 million in damages were awarded, may actually be viewed as the winner if the case had been realistically valued at $25 million (or more). Nevertheless, there are situations in which winning and losing are clearly demarcated.
For instance, if a client needs U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of a drug, getting initial clearance, successfully responding to questions, and generally moving the process forward are positive steps, but, winning means getting the approval and nothing less. Similarly, if a highly attractive lateral group is in play, it is positive when a firm shows well, makes a compelling "case," and extends an offer that is seriously considered. While that is nice, winning entails getting the group — not finishing second.
Successful lawyers and firms, like their sporting counterparts, are the ones who are not afraid to go for the win, and, more often than not, get it.
In conclusion, one may wonder if my future recruiting efforts will be spent in gyms, fields and on courts where lawyers are playing sports. Maybe it would be easier to find star attorneys by having a lawyers’ combine, where 40-yard-dash times are clocked, body fat is measured, and hand-eye coordination is tested. I jest, of course, but do believe that adopting the characteristics of successful athletes that were examined here will make you a better lawyer. •
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.