June 2017

IMG_0021I’m off to Baltimore for a Federal sentencing conference. But I’m still looking back to last week’s coaching certification class for my son’s clay shooting team. And I wanted to share another life lesson from that conference. Most sports lessons are life lessons in disguise after all.

A big part of the curriculum dealt with how to correct the athlete’s mistakes while also preserving the athlete’s enjoyment of the sport. We were told to lead our critique by telling the athlete about something he did correctly. Then we discuss some item or items we noticed that needs to be addressed. And we encourage the athlete to keep a written log of observations from practice and competition. According to the research from our manual, we lose about 50% of what we hear if we do not write it down.

The clay shooting community strikes me as a fairly conservative and old-school crowd. So, this was not new-age, millennial froo froo, stuff. However, perhaps unwittingly, we were being taught a fairly “zen” concept. The idea here is that we notice the athlete’s actions and point them out. The actual shot is forgotten, but the observations are what we take away. “Today, I learned that I need to follow through after the shot and that my footwork is good.” We don’t take away from the experience, “I’m the greatest clay shooter ever” or “I really suck at clay shooting.”

There is something in this for the practice of law and for life. What if I kept a little log of what I learned after I file a brief, after an oral argument, or a client consultation? Then I would notice the experience, making habits out of what went well, and correcting for things I could do better.

It might help us to climb down from the negative self talk treadmill. What do I mean by this? When we move beyond the level of noticing behavior to the level of self-criticism, we either over-inflate our value (“I’m a tremendous trial lawyer”) or we short circuit the likelihood of better performance. Better to notice what we are doing, let go of the behavior that misses the mark, embrace right action, and keep up with the lessons along the way.

IMG_0019I spent last Friday and Saturday in a certification class so that I can be an assistant coach on my son’s clay shooting team for the upcoming season. The class consisted of a classroom component and a hands-on component at a local gun club. There, we alternated between shooting at targets and coaching our partner in his effort to do so. And one of the program’s teachers coached our coaching. We were being evaluated for our coaching and not our shooting. But I felt  nervous about shooting in front of a bunch of coaches. I’ve never fooled with guns before my son became interested in this sport. And while most dads lead their children to this sport, my son had led me. But this activity was all about the coaching even if it didn’t feel like it.

My student came up to the line and shot. He was a very experienced shooter. And he obliterated the first target he saw. I know because I watched the little orange flying saucer blow up. I watched it intensely. And in so doing, I made my first mistake of the afternoon. The coaching coach asked me to tell my student how had just executed the shot — to walk him through a narrative of the process from what I had just observed. Of course, I hadn’t watched how he executed the shot, and the coordinator knew that I hadn’t (this is a very common mistake, by the way). I couldn’t say anything about his stance, how he mounted the gun, or how he viewed and tracked the shot. I took my eyes completely off him and focused 100% on the result (in my defense, it’s hard not to focus on an explosion). So, I was in no position to tell my student what he had done right so he could repeat it. And if he had merely gotten lucky with very bad form, I was in no position to correct his form to create more consistent results. All I could say was “good job,” judging from the fact that I watched a target explode but with no knowledge of what happened to create that result. If I were to coach a student over the course of a day or a season, he would walk away from the experience judging himself by a standard that he did not fully understand. Engagement with the student trumps judging solely by a result.

When it was my turn to shoot, my “coach” was able to correct things about my technique and to point out to me the things I was doing right. At a couple of points along the way he had to ask, “did you hit the target?” I knew. The student always know the answer to this question. So, the coach is free to evaluate the student and not worry about finding it for himself.

I took some valuable life lessons and management lessons from the day (I also enjoyed the experience). If we always focus on results, we are not engaged enough with what we are doing. We’re grading ourselves on what happens “out there.” We are not learning what to do to be consistent and to build habits out of our correct actions. Practice doesn’t always make perfect. Sometimes is makes permanent.

When the students reach a competition, results will matter. When we go to court, results matter. But going into a competition, what we are doing on our next shot, how we stand, what we do with our eyes, what we do when the target comes out, and how we deal with it all is what prepares us for success. And, after the competition, what we take from it is what will matter. And some results are beyond our control. We don’t create the facts in our case. We do not create the precedent that controls how the case will be decided. And a student in a competition cannot control how talented a component might be. We can only control what we do and how well we prepare.

Just as it was a mistake to focus exclusively on the result when I should have been focused on how the shot was made, we should think about how we construct our briefs, how we prepare for court, how well we listen to the client in the consultation, and how powerfully we told our client’s story to a judge, jury, or panel of judges. When we focus on that progress, the targets tend to take care of themselves. We should all take a closer look at ourselves and honestly evaluate and not ride the wave of hearbreak and exaltation that comes from focusing only on results.

IMG_0018Robert Mueller recently made a serious move. He brought in an appellate guy. Michael Dreeben has argued 100 cases in the United States Supreme Court and has been with the Solicitor General’s office since 1988. The move indicated, even to the people at Fox News, that things are about to get serious. This investigation now has an Oceans 11 feel to it.

No matter what your politics might be, there is a lesson to be learned here. If you are serious about your upcoming trial, adding an appellate person to your team indicates that things are about to get real. It will help you preserve a record for appeal. And a solid motions practice often creates better plea offers.

27th October 1960:  A Munich secretary simultaneously typing and making a phone call with the aid of the Beoton telephone amplifier.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Chad Burton has given up his laptop and his iPad and now works exclusively from his iPhone. He manages software and consulting firm for lawyers with it. On a recent podcast, two lawyers discussed whether they could travel with just a phone and still get their work done. The debate for them came down to whether they needed a tablet and phone or just a phone. I noticed that the computer was not really a part of the discussion.

The interesting insight is that I took away from both pieces is that older lawyers may have an edge when it comes to working with minimal technology. Older lawyers developed the skills to compose by voice. And now, between Siri and Dragon Anywhere, lawyers with dictation skills can get work done without much infrastructure.

Long ago, when I was a high school student working at a law firm (1988), I can remember that the paralegals had computers but lawyers didn’t. The lawyers composed into a dictaphone or a microcassette recorder. And the paralegals typed it all up. When I was in law school and working in various law offices, the lawyers and paralegals both had computers. And I had my choice. I could type everything myself, and I could dictate. I had a foot in both worlds. It is a rare office now where lawyers dictate for others to transcribe. Though dictation is alive and well in medicine.

Now, things have both advanced and come full circle. It is possible to compose by dictating but without the need for staff. The software on a smartphone does the work of the 1988-era paralegal. But for a generation of lawyers trained to compose on the keyboard, dictation is a skill not yet learned.

The irony is that you could likely cut out a great deal of overhead in your office if you embraced some old-school legal skills that once required a large staff to support. And it may be dependence on desks and desktop computers that is driving up your costs.