Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association GPSolo eReport.
This article is the third 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 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. My second article explored how a background in athletics can impact an attorney’s fundamental decisions about his or her career. In this article, I will discuss how aspects of the athletic experience can influence an attorney’s approach to practicing law.
Athletics demands a high level of commitment. When I was a senior in high school, my role as the top-ranked female on my tennis team was to assist my coach in ensuring that our team worked hard during our daily practices. One afternoon, one of our players appeared to be sneaking out of practice. I called out, “Hey, why are you leaving early? Practice isn’t done yet.” The player responded, “I need to leave early. Prom is tonight, and I have to get ready.” I’m sure my jaw dropped, as I stared at her in stunned silence. I had been working at a part-time job to pay tennis-related expenses, attending classes, studying hard, and practicing and competing in my sport. Between all of that, I had no idea until that moment that the prom, considered by some to be a hallmark of high school, was even occurring! As an athlete, clearly, my high school experience was atypical. Like many accomplished athletes, I cultivated a strong work ethic and the related ability to focus my time and energy on the elements most critical to successfully managing a variety of roles. This work ethic, fortunately, has never left me. It serves me well today as I tackle the ongoing responsibilities inherent in practicing law and running a small business.
Patricia Miranda explained how the lessons she learned about hard work as a wrestler apply to her current role as an attorney: “These are the skills I built before. It was simpler back then. But I still need to be my own friend. I still need to set little goals. I still need to be proud of what I do, and go to sleep tired every night. That used to be something that would go through my head when I was training: ‘I need to do everything I can do to earn this rest.’ And in a legal case, it’s like that too. I need to be okay with how much I put into it.”
As a bike racer, Bob Mionske developed valuable insights concerning his capacity for work. He stated, “I figured out how to push myself past the limit. I would pay a heavy price if I did that, but I could do it. I found that to be important. I thought: ‘Well, if I can do that with my body, if I could take on difficult odds like that and stay focused, I should be able to do the same thing as a trial attorney.’ The first trial I won felt a lot like winning a bike race. It was very gratifying. I had done a lot of work.”
For Kathleen McRoberts, “the defeats were the most defining moments, not the victories.” She continued, “In my entire tennis career, there was only one time when I felt I did not give 100 percent. And I know exactly what match it was. I lost, and it was a bad loss. And it has stuck with me to this day. I always remember that feeling of not giving my best. I hate that feeling. It was just awful. My mom was there, and I remember thinking, ‘Why did we travel all this way to this tournament so I could come out and not give it my all?’ I always gave a hundred percent when I stepped onto that court. And it’s the same now in law.”
Athletes tend to be highly competitive. Merrell Bailey laughed as she discussed her competitive nature: “I was the valedictorian of my law school class, so I think the whole competitive thing is probably imbedded in me. Now, I absolutely get fired up about my law practice. I love what I do.”
A key difference in approaching an athletic competition as opposed to a legal battle lies in the very nature of an attorney’s work—representing someone else rather than, as an athlete, achieving a good result for yourself. Bob was quick to point out that competing as an attorney differed from competing as an athlete. In describing his first trial, Bob affirmed that he obtained “a good, just result for my client.” He paused, then continued, “And that was a different feeling than doing something for myself, getting a pat on the back in sports. It was a lot more powerful, to help someone else rather than yourself.”
Patricia expressed similar sentiments: “Any case seems like the entire world. And it really can be in a lot of ways. It’s much harder than wrestling, because it matters to somebody else and not just me. I think that makes it much harder in terms of the pressure. ‘Some dad isn’t going to see his kids anymore because I wasn’t able to learn all the right cases and arguments.’ My goodness, that is so much more important than, ‘If I don’t win the semifinals, then I will not be in the Olympic finals.’” She chuckled. “That matters to nobody but me.” Patricia continued, “I get very competitive when I see an injustice being done. That’s where you are going to see me get very revved up about something. I try to calm myself down and then be practical. If there’s an injustice, it’s very easy to mobilize my competitiveness. But if it’s something that I don’t feel is a deep injustice, then my competitiveness is limited to competing with myself. I need to know that I did not drop the ball. I need to know that I’m making a difference, and that my client is getting the best attention, service, and care.”
Strategy and Preparation
To achieve success in athletics, an athlete must prepare. As a tennis player, I needed to study my opponents, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and come into every match with both a plan of attack and a Plan B to implement if my initial strategies prove ineffective. As an attorney, I find the need for strategy and preparation in order to earn good results for my clients to be remarkably similar to my needs on the tennis court.
Similarly, Kathleen stated, “One of the things I’m really good at, and I’m assuming my athletic endeavors are what helped me with this, is that I have a keen understanding of strategy. It’s that idea that every point in tennis does not have the same value. It might look like it does, but it doesn’t. If it’s 30 all, that point has more value than the first point of the game, right? There’s a lot of strategy in tennis. The ability to strategize is a strength of mine. It’s knowing when to push people, push judges, and knowing when to step back. Having a really good read on the situation. Knowing when things are more valuable, at what time. I really think all of my athletic endeavors have honed that strategy piece.”
Merrell echoed these thoughts, in terms of her responsibilities as a business owner: “As a managing partner, you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish on a certain date, and then you back into what you have to do to get there, which is exactly what you do to get ready for any type of competition.”
“I was a race winner, I won a lot of races,” Bob explained. “I wasn’t necessarily one of the best guys, but that’s the beautiful thing about bicycle racing. It’s highly psychological. The strongest rider doesn’t always win. There are so many variables in a bicycle race. To lay out a simple example, if the best rider at the very end takes off, and the second-best rider decides to chase him down and pulls everyone up to him; well, it’s a guaranteed fact that neither of them will win the race. That leaves it open for the third, the fourth, or the twentieth best guy. Bicycle racing is highly tactical. There’s a lot of strategy. It really keeps your mind in the game.” Bob continued, “One comparison between bike racing and practicing law is that, what helps your strategy in cycling is having an idea of what your competitor is thinking, what their strategy might be. I notice some attorneys get so headstrong in their positions—it’s ‘us against the other side.’ They don’t stop to think about what the other side might be thinking, and what it’s like to stand in their shoes and the variables that they’re confronting. If you can take the time to do that, it helps you alter your strategy. I think knowing what your competitor in a case is doing and what motivates them is very valuable.”
My fourth and final article in this series will discuss how involvement in athletics can contribute to an attorney’s legal skills regarding teamwork, sportsmanship, and the ability to handle pressure.