Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association GPSolo eReport.
This article is the second of four installments exploring the stories, lessons, and advice of high-level athletes who went on to become successful solo and small firm attorneys.
This article series explores the relationship between sports and the law, and how athletics provides the perfect training ground of hard work, discipline, strategic skills, competitiveness, passion, balance, teamwork, and sportsmanship—all desired qualities for running a successful solo or small-firm legal practice. In my first article (here), I introduced four notable athletes who went on to develop successful solo and small firm practices and who will be featured throughout this article series: Kathleen McRoberts, Merrell Bailey, Bob Mionske, and Patricia Miranda. This article will discuss how being involved in athletics can impact an attorney’s fundamental decisions about his or her career, including the initial decision to become an attorney, and later the choice of an area of practice and whether to start a solo or small firm legal practice.
Pursuing a Legal Career
For Patricia Miranda, her choices to pursue wrestling and, later, a career as an attorney were “tightly linked.” When Patricia began wrestling in middle school, her father actively sought to prevent her from pursuing her sport. As a recent Brazilian immigrant, Patricia’s father viewed wrestling as a “distraction” from what Patricia should be doing: studying, pursuing her career, and getting ahead in their adopted country. To discourage her from participating, he took active measures including scratching Patricia’s names from competition rosters. When Patricia was in high school, her father told her that he would sue the school district to prevent her from competing. Patricia stated, “I went to do a little research. Can he really sue the school? Can they really keep me from wrestling? And that’s when I stumbled onto Title IX. So I said, ‘Dad, we’re in America now! You can’t sue the school if they let me wrestle. We can only sue the school if they don’t let me wrestle.’”
Patricia continued, “I was so impressed that somebody, decades ago, had cared enough to fight for something like Title IX. That planted the seed for me to go to law school. I was amazed that someone, because of their profession, made that much of a difference in my life, and that law was the tool to do that. From that point on, I wanted to be an attorney.”
Choosing an Area of Practice
For cyclist Bob Mionske, his cycling career sparked an interest in marrying his knowledge of his sport to his desire to practice law and do trial work. As a result, Bob became the first attorney in the United States to focus his practice exclusively on bicycle law. After graduating from Willamette University College of Law in 1999, Bob moved to his home state of Wisconsin to work for a personal injury law firm. Bob stayed at the firm “for about 12 weeks” before deciding his new career needed to shift in a decidedly different direction. Bob stated, “I started thinking, this is not really what I had in mind. I got one trial in, and then there was nothing on the dockets for a long time. I was essentially sitting on my butt, between the drive there and the drive back, for nine hours a day. I realized I had made a mistake. The only way I was going to continue to be a lawyer was if I could find a way to do it for myself, and represent people that I had something in common with and that I could help. And that’s what led me to the cycling idea.”
Bob explained, “I actually was hired as an expert in law school on a cycling case. I realized that there were a lot of variables in prosecuting a bicycle injury case that were outside of the realm of the attorneys’ understanding. At that time, people weren’t sure what rights cyclists had. I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a pretty ‘bikey’ town. I got this idea that maybe I could get some work that way, so I hung out a shingle.”
In 2001 Bob moved to Oregon and started a firm in Portland focusing on bicycle law. Primarily, Bob represents cyclists who suffer injuries owing to collisions with motor vehicles; however, he envisions a future in which his work may increasingly become obsolete. “Distracted driving has become an epidemic in this country. It’s not getting any better, unfortunately, notwithstanding that we have a prohibition from using handheld devices in Oregon. This area of practice is not going anywhere until we get smart cars. There’s been some talk that this technology will put us out of business. If that’s the case, that’s fine by me.”
Starting a Solo or Small Law Firm
My experience as a junior tennis player greatly influenced my choice, down the road, to start my own law firm. Unlike the experience of most junior tennis players today, my parents did not oversee my tournament play. If I wanted to play competitive tennis, I needed to manage all aspects of that commitment. For example, as a junior high and, later, a high school student, I needed to figure out what tournaments to play, how I would get there (including airline travel), how to pay for the associated costs, and how to sign up for housing. I often stayed with tennis families living near the vicinity of the tournament whom I had never met before. In addition to the logistical aspects of playing tennis, like any athlete, I needed to deal with the game itself—including playing opponents in a wide variety of weather conditions such as an Idaho spring snowstorm or a summer day exceeding 100 degrees, playing matches at midnight, and playing a variety of players with widely varying skill sets. Outside of doubles, when you play tennis, you play for yourself. You are solely responsible for your own results. Tennis taught me to be extremely independent, self-sufficient, resourceful, resilient, and adaptable at a young age. Later, when I worked in various law firms, I grew frustrated because I lacked the ability to make truly independent choices regarding my practice areas, clients, and case strategies. I longed for the ability to “fight through my matches on my own,” as I had always done in tennis. Like Bob, I decided that, if I was going to continue to be an attorney, I needed to make a course correction and hang out my own shingle.
Merrell Bailey, who competed in rowing, described the qualities needed to be a successful attorney in a solo or small firm law environment: “You have to be organized. You have to be detail oriented. You have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. You have a duty to yourself and your family to be successful. You have a duty to your staff to be successful. And you have a duty to your clients to do what you told them you would do, and do it very well.” When asked whether her experience as an athlete helped her cultivate these characteristics, Merrell responded, “Oh, certainly. The Division One athletes have to show up on time, they have to do what they say they are going to do, and they have to be coachable. Everything that makes an athlete successful also makes an attorney and business owner successful.”
Kathleen McRoberts, a former Division One tennis player, added an interesting note on how the competitiveness developed as an athlete contributes to the desire to start your own law firm. She laughingly commented, “I try to pretend that I’m not as competitive as I am.” She continued, on a more serious note, “As far as building my practice, wanting to have the biggest practice, wanting to be the expert in my region, that’s what the competitiveness means now. I want my law firm to be the very best in the region.”
In addition to influencing career choices, an athletic background may also impact an attorney’s approach to practicing law in terms of developing a disciplined work ethic and approaching cases with a high level of preparation and a well-thought-out strategy. My third article in this series will explore these concepts in more detail.