Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association GPSolo eReport.
This article is the fourth and final installment in our series 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 have been 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. My third article explained how aspects of the athletic experience can influence an attorney’s approach to practicing law. In this article I will discuss the valuable lessons learned from sports concerning teamwork and sportsmanship, and how these lessons impact an attorney’s approach to engaging as a lawyer. I’ll also address how involvement in sports provides a unique perspective that assists attorneys in tackling an ever-present issue in our profession: work/life balance.
As a former junior tennis player, I loved playing doubles. Successful doubles teams confer briefly and frequently with each other to discuss the strategy of each point and provide constant positive reinforcement. My experience playing doubles with Kathleen McRoberts strongly influences how I run my law firm today. My firm employs a team approach in handling our client files, and we frequently confer with each other to review and edit each other’s work and to select the best strategy to apply to a given situation.
Merrell Bailey described the lessons about teamwork she learned from rowing: “With rowing, everyone needs to know what to expect. Everyone needs to know what the terms are. You have to know what you are trying to accomplish, and everyone needs to work together to make things happen. So it is such a great microcosm of the business world. A single rowing shell is the perfect business model.” She continued, “You’ve got eight people who have to know what to do and how to get things done. And you’ve got the coxswain as the manager making sure that everything happens. Everybody has to know what the goal is and speak a common language of stroke rate or how you even get in and out of the boat. That needs to be very structured. If you can succeed as a sweep rower in an eight, you can be a very successful business person.”
In a sports competition, it’s called sportsmanship; in a legal matter, it’s called civility. The principle is the same: treating your opponent with a sense of dignity and respect and playing fairly by the rules. Many athletes learn key lessons about sportsmanship that they later adhere to, as high standards of civility, as they practice law. Kathleen noted, “Everybody knows, there’s always the cheater in tennis. You see it all the time. The ball was in, but they’re calling it out. The analogy to that is working with other attorneys who are basically calling the ball out when it was in. You don’t have to play that way.”
Patricia Miranda explained the similarities between wrestling competitions and legal battles: “Everybody is going to lose at some point, and it’s very humbling. With sportsmanship, that’s what you recognize. That person across the way could just as well be you. It’s not an offense to anyone that they want to win, too. You have a right to want to win; they have a right to want to win. They had the gall, same as you, to step into the ring and that deserves a bit of respect. I feel that same way about my colleagues. This profession is a weight that you carry, a great honor. They chose to be responsible and to absorb anxiety for their clients. They chose to try to make a difference. They chose to step in the ring. It takes a lot before I believe less of opposing counsel. I’ll always give them the chance.”
Similarly, Merrell remarked: “You realize when you’re an athlete that you’re competing against someone down the street attending a different high school or across town attending a different college. You’re going to run into these people. The sporting world is very small, and so is the business and legal world. You compete fiercely during the competition, and then when it’s over you need to be able to sit down with those people and have a good time and enjoy them.” She continued, “It never hurts to be nice. Today you might be the winner, but tomorrow you’re going to be the loser—so know that you have to be kind to people all the way through because we’re all in this competition together.”
Does experience as an athlete impact an attorney’s current choices in pursuing both a successful law practice and other interests? Bob Mionske offered this comparison: “In bicycle racing, the way the sport has developed, you race all the time. You’re always racing. That’s kind of like the legal practice. You wake up, and there’s always a fire to put out. And there’s always something you can be doing. So, you have to have endurance. When you’re training, you can’t go out and overdo it for a week or two. You’ll put yourself in a hole. It’s the same with your practice. You have to take time out. You need to mix in the things in life that enable you to endure and keep going.”
“As an athlete, you try to find a balance between your commitment to your sport and your commitment to whatever else is in your life,” Kathleen explained. “Because you can’t just be a tennis player, because then you burn out. And you can’t just be all about your legal practice, because you will burn out.”
An athlete’s continued interest in a sport can create a pleasurable option in pursuing another interest outside of law. For example, I’ve enjoyed my deep involvement, originally as a board member and now as a member of the advisory board, of a Seattle-area nonprofit, Tennis Outreach Programs (TOPs). TOPs operates a tennis facility providing a safe and supportive environment for children to pursue tennis regardless of their economic circumstances. I’m also looking forward to attending one of tennis’s four major tournaments, the Australian Open, next January.
Kathleen still plays tennis, coaching her daughter, who is a competitive junior tennis player in Idaho. Bob continues to cycle, noting, “Living in Portland, there’s a pretty developed cycling culture here. I ride my bike everywhere I go. My friends are all cyclists. The Bike Law Network of attorneys is filled with cycling lawyers, and we meet up and do rides. Cycling is a large part of my life and continues to be.” Merrell happily reported, “I still row today, at the Orlando Rowing Club as a Master. We row at dawn. It’s beautiful to watch the sun rise. It’s such a Zen sport, and it’s very quiet. You row in the dark, and then the sun comes up and it’s just gorgeous out there.”
Bob, Merrell, Patricia, and Kathleen provide great insights into how the careers of notable athletes have translated into careers as successful solo and small firm attorneys. Their sports differ, and, as practicing lawyers, their practice areas differ. But their stories are similar and can serve to motivate and inspire all attorneys—regardless of whether those attorneys are former Olympians, casual players who enjoy a friendly competition at the family ping-pong table, or anywhere in between.