Georgia Criminal Appellate Law Blog

Offering Insight and Commentary on Appellate Law and Criminal Trial Practice

For Great Cross-Examination, Forget You Ever Knew Matlock, Perry Mason, or Jack McCoy

Posted in Trial Techniques

I cut my teeth in law school on Terrance McCarthy’s cross-examination methods. During my 2L year, I recall preparing for a national mock trial competition. During our first practice of the year, our coach popped in a cassette (yes, a cassette.It was the year 2000) of Terry giving a talk in Las Vegas to a NACDL group. I thought the guy on the tape was about the coolest dude I’d ever heard. In a booming Irish/mid-western accent and in between references to getting drunk and a set of the most politically-incorrect jokes you can imagine was a blueprint for great cross-examination that I have taken with me to this day. When we advanced to the final round, who was on the bench in Chicago but the man himself, Terry McCarthy. And I got to do some Terry McCarthy stuff in front of Terry McCarthy. It was the courtroom equivalent of my son having LeBron James as a referee in a little league basketball game. I take the lessons from that cassette with me to this day. I’m sure that many of my clients would be in prison somewhere but for the lessons from Terry that I have retained.

And now I combine my McCarthy stuff with what I learn from Posner and Dodd on cross-examination. The Pozner and Dodd book on cross-examination is like the Bible. I have tried to read both from cover to cover, and it has never quite worked out. But both books work well for regular study, particularly as life events dictate that you dive into particular things. Both are canonical works. Both can seem unwieldy at times. Posner and Dodd have worked out a method for just about everything a lawyer might encounter on cross examination. For instance, there is an entire chapter dedicated to “The Crying Witness.” (Preview:  there is much in there about using silence as a control technique.) But more to the big point from today’s dive into P&D. And that point is to forget you ever knew Matlock, Perry Mason, or Jack McCoy — fictional characters who all clean somebody’s clock on cross in the last ten minutes of a tv show.

No matter what method you use for cross, they all have one thing in common. All good cross-examination techniques emphasize planning. And all the cross-examination gurus would tell you to forget that you ever saw a tv lawyer doing a cross-examination. Don’t go for drama. Don’t go for the gotcha. A spectacular cross-examination might seem utterly un-dramatic at the time. Good crosses are planned crosses:

Many lawyers believe that it is possible to perform good cross-examination without a script. This is undoubtably true. It is also possible for a visitor to find her way in a city without a map, but it would be quicker and safer if she had one. It would be easier if she had studied the map and outlined a route in advance. … The lawyer works from a script in cross-examination, so she can avoid the “Oh no”! syndrome. [where cross-examination has been completed and] the lawyer returns to the counsel table where she looks down at her list of things she has to cover and sees one or more things she forgot completely to address. The lawyer says to herself, “Oh no!” (or worse).

Walk into any courtroom on any hearing or trial day and you are much likely to encounter a lawyer attempting to be Perry Mason than trying to be Terrance McCarthy, Larry Posner, or Roger Dodd. From time to time the former will get lucky. But more often than not, Matlock, Perry Mason, and Jack McCoy techniques only work where a team of writers have paid a tv jury for their verdict. The rest of us are better off being methodical planners. And with that, I’m off to continue planning a cross-examination for later this week.

The Weekend Perfection Wasn’t an Obstacle

Posted in Uncategorized

At the beginning of the summer, I signed up for a marathon in Chattanooga. And I spent most of June through August training for it. At about the halfway point in my training (mid-August), school started back. Then I had a fairly slammed schedule of deadlines and work-related things. As a result, I began missing training runs. In the past, I would have moved an event like this over to the loss column. Instead, I reached out to the event organizers and asked them to move me over to the half marathon. So, Saturday morning, I took my older two children, and we headed up to Chattanooga. We had a blast at the expo, which included meeting Lazarus, the director of the famous Barkley Marathons. We also met some friends of ours who were running in the event. We had a great dinner Saturday and were up Sunday.

At about 7:00 yesterday morning, I saw my friend off on the full marathon. And at about 7:15, I was off on my half marathon adventure. This journey took me over the Tennessee River 4 times, in some of the most beautiful scenery you can hope for in a running event. Along the way, I met a bunch of great people. And though it wasn’t the full marathon and it was not my best time, I felt a sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line. And even better, I was at the finish line to cheer on some friends when they finished the half marathon and full marathon. I’m already looking down the calendar at some events on Thanksgiving Day.

Is there a practice lesson from this? I think it’s this. Even when things do not work out as perfectly as you planned them out in your mind, you can make changes and still achieve a perfect moment. Also, it is important to not let some expectation you have for the future get in the way of making forward progress. I could have stayed home this weekend. Instead, I had one of the best weekends of my life, had two great meals with friends, took in some Tennessee scenery, and had some great conversations with my children. Would it be bad to say that I’m looking forward to falling short of some more big plans in the future?

The Hardest Part About Being in Jail

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

Yesterday was Friday afternoon, but I needed to see an inmate to let him know when he would go before a judge on bond. Some work around the office pushed that visit into the afternoon. And when I finally arrived at the jail, the entire facility was on lockdown. Lockdowns are not unusual. And when they happen, visitation suspends. I made a joke about the receptionist “going back there and taking care of business” so I could get my visit done and I left to work on some other things. For an hour or so I worked on some paperwork and set some things in place for next week.

I returned to the jail at around 4:00 p.m. Visitation was re-opened. However, the facility only has one attorney booth. And detectives were using it to interview somebody. And quite a few new inmates were being booked in. So, my client and I had to meet on the benches in the visitation area. About 8 feet away were two inmates sleeping on pallets underneath gray jail-issued blankets. There is a good bit of sleeping in the jail.

When they finally brought my client out, he looked a bit dazed. I told him the good news: we have a hearing set. And I told him the bad news: we will not have it for a couple of weeks, and he will remain where he is at least until then. I reiterated my standard advice to incarcerated clients. (1) Don’t discuss your case with anybody; (2) Don’t learn the details of anybody else’s case; (3) Don’t talk about your case, your lawyer, the State’s lawyer, the detective, the jail staff, or anything criminal justice related on the telephone; and (3) Don’t discuss your case with anybody.

I expected more disappointment at the timeline. But he took it in stride. As I was leaving, he thanked me. “The hardest part of jail is not knowing what is about to happen,” he said. Even bad news is news. And bad news is better than not knowing anything at all.

America Should Adopt the British Solicitor/Barrister Model

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

Let me tell you about my latest obsession: the British legal system. I came upon this topic by accident. Two weeks ago, I had a two-day hearing in Barrow County, Georgia, with some colleagues. For those of you who do not know much about Georgia geography, Winder is not near my office. And to get there from here requires a Hobson’s choice of routes. Either (A) I go through Atlanta traffic on the interstate to work my way there, or (B) I avoid all of that in exchange for a set of two-lane roads where I will inevitably travel behind buses, garbage trucks, or the elderly. A smarter version of me would have stayed in Winder for two nights. But I opted to commute both days. And so I do what I do when I have a bunch of driving, I cash in an audible credit. And when I truly need the stress relief, I seek out a legal thriller. Mind you, I do not really care if the legal thriller I choose is completely mindless. Indeed, I may ever prefer the mindless variety. I also did not research my choice very well. I searched for my book from the driveway before I left. And I have a very short window of time for such things in the driveway before my wife comes out and throws up her hands in disbelief that I am in the driveway with the car running for a long period of time.

And so it was that I bought Nick Stone’s The Verdict. I realized after it was too late that I had downloaded a British legal thriller. But I couldn’t fiddle with the phone too much as I had opted for the two-lane route to Barrow County. And the narrator had a pleasing accent. And all this was fine because I was quickly enthralled in the story. And as much as I was enthralled with the story, I was intrigued by how a client with a criminal matter hires legal representation in England. I just finished up the book this week. And I’ve now watched a documentary on barristers. And I also have a law student this semester who grew up in England who has endured my OCD questions to her about all of this (may God have mercy upon her).

So, I am about to launch into some fairly sweeping opinions with my research on this subject consisting of (1) nearly two decades of experience as an American criminal defense attorney; (2) having listened to a British legal thriller; (3) having read some John Mortimer Rumpole stories a long time ago; (4) having watched a short documentary; and (5) having quizzed a British law student of mine about all of this. Feel free to correct me if you know more than I do on these subjects. I am very aware of the flaws in our system, and I may be blind to the flaws in the alternative.

Flaws in the American System

Here are some of the differences. In America, you get in trouble, and you retain a lawyer. The lawyer is your one stop shop for your representation. You might go to a big firm, but most American criminal defense attorneys are in solo practice or a very small firm (2-3 lawyers tops). If you’re in some deep trouble as a CEO in a large company, you might end up in the white collar division of a large law firm. But generally you are going to hire somebody in a small shop. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may get a public defender of some sort, either from a government office or by appointment. And if you get your lawyer by appointment, it will be a lawyer who takes appointments and who does some retained work — somebody in a small shop as discussed at the beginning of this paragraph. Your lawyer will not prosecute and defend cases at the same time. He may have been a prosecutor in a past life. Or he may one day close up his shop and be a prosecutor. But we do criminal defense the way we do marriage in America. Just as we have multiple spouses here serially (one at a time), so we can either be wedded to the State or to the defense serially. Your lawyer will not have prosecution and defense clients (there might be some exceptions. But this is the general rule).

You will have found your lawyer any number of ways, ranging from the sensible to the absolute lunatic method. The sensible and more educated client will have sought out a referral from a trusted lawyer, friend, or family member who has some insider knowledge of who the good lawyers are. That is one side of the spectrum. On the other side of the spectrum (may God have mercy on your soul), you will have googled “DUI Hahira Georgia” and have come to find your lawyer that way. In which case, you may have found a great lawyer or you may have found the lawyer who is great at search engine optimization and is not much of a lawyer at all. Or you may hire the guy who wrote Aunt Jeana’s will. Or the lawyer may have found you after purchasing the police blotter from the day you were arrested and directly soliciting you (I cannot invoke God’s blessings if you go with this lawyer, as God has clearly long since abandoned your soul and taken your IQ away). By the way, the appellate clients have been burned and become the savviest shoppers for legal services at this point in the case (if they haven’t become sovereign citizens).

The lawyer you find may be great, or he may show up to your hearing two hours late, wearing a stained shirt and wrinkled suit, with a fresh buzz from the oxycodone he just freebased out in the parking lot. You are sort of playing the lottery. More likely than not, the judge will pretend that your lawyer’s shirt is clean, his suit is pressed, and that he is not falling asleep as he selects the jury who will decide your fate. From the judge’s perspective, it’s hard to move the docket if you remove lawyers or take other remedial action (Every docket has lawyers like this. Seriously, every docket.). And under the Strickland standard, the appellate courts will likely find that buzzed lawyering was “appropriate trial tactics” and that there wasn’t much of a likelihood of a different result with a sober lawyer who smelled good.

The lawyer you hire will do it all. He will run the office, take your fee, investigate your case (perhaps with the assistance of a paid investigator), serve the subpoenas, find experts, take your calls and emails, negotiate a resolution, and represent you in court.

If your lawyer wears a coat and tie when he meets with you, it is as dressed up as he will be. When he is in court, he will be wearing a coat and tie there, too. And in court, you will sit at the table with him during court. As the proceedings unfold, you will pester him mercilessly and break his focus as you lean over to whisper in his ear, “he’s lying” while witnesses testify.

Enter the English System

In England, you hire a solicitor. This solicitor runs an office and acts like something of a coordinator for legal services. The solicitor takes your retainer. She develops a strategy at the 10,000 foot level, including the hiring of an investigator and the selection of expert witnesses. The solicitor then hires the barrister, who will be sort of the professional athlete in the courtroom. The barrister does nothing but court work. If the barrister develops a nasty opioid habit solicitors will stop turning to him. The solicitor does a job. The barrister does a job. And if you are a barrister, you can eventually get a promotion to QC, which is a higher level barrister. Your barrister may be defending you but prosecuting others. There is no prosecutor’s office. The barrister has a mixed workload. When you are in court your barrister will sit in a different place in the courtroom. And your actual barrister will be wearing a robe and (here’s what I love the most) a wig. You will mainly deal with the solicitor, and the solicitor will coordinate with the barrister. So, when you find interesting things 5 times a day on the internet you want to run by your representative — the solicitor screens all of that. The barrister prepares for and executes in the courtroom.

Here is why I think the American legal system needs to embrace the British model:

  1. No “True Believer” Syndrome. I am going to get myself in trouble with many of my colleagues when I say this, but if I could take a 50/50 split in defense cases and prosecution cases, I would absolutely do that. I love trying cases and being a criminal lawyer first and foremost, and it would make absolutely no difference which side of the “v.” I am on. I’m agnostic about it all. I’m a defense attorney because I do not want to work in a government office and I like being selective about what cases I take. I do not prosecute out of any sort of choice. I can’t. In criminal work, I meet my share of “true believers.” They come in two varieties. They are equally terrible and annoying to be around. On the one side are prosecutorial true believers. See, e.g. Nancy Grace. They view all alleged victims as noble and truthful who are to be avenged. They view all police officers as ethical and intelligent. And they seek maximum punishment for all, in spite of whatever mitigating circumstances may exist. On the other side are true believer defense attorneys. They think that all victims are lying, all police officers are corrupt at their core, that the criminal code should be merely aspirational, and that an arrest or conviction for a serious felony is a prerequisite to sainthood. They live to find the beautiful pure heart that is just beneath the surface of the triple axe murderer whom everybody else just misunderstands. They would like to amend the rules of the appellate courts so that they could file their pleadings on tye dyed paper. True believers of both stripes lose perspective and cause much damage. If we had a mixture of prosecution and defense cases, we would probably be better defenders and prosecutors. Barristers have this benefit.
  2. Barristers have a Buffer and a Focus. The barrister is focused on performing in court and doesn’t have an office to run. The barrister isn’t being a salesman to the client (“oh my gosh, that is a fascinating piece you’ve printed off for me from Findlaw. Of course, I’ll talk about this in court,[ because I want you to hire me and keep me on as your lawyer.]”). The barrister is focused on a winning court strategy. The solicitor gets to discuss the fascinating winning legal theory that the client’s brother-in-law, who took a class in college on business litigation once, has developed. The barrister is getting ready for court.
  3. Quality Control. If you are bad at trial law or you are going through some “personal stuff,” the solicitors will likely know. And you won’t be inflicting your mental distress or lack of chops on an unsuspecting clientele. The solicitors, who are in the know, will just go elsewhere. The barrister’s target audience are professionals and not folks who can be easily manipulated. Hence, there will be less incentive to employ slimy internet marketing tactics to get clients directly.

It is entirely possible that I am just an Anglophile. But I don’t think this is the case. My modest proposal is that we, as a legal institution, switch to a British system, at least in the criminal realm. We should do this pretty much right away. I will go wig shopping first thing this morning.


Is Court Canceled or Not? There is no System to Know

Posted in News

Irma has been an adventure. It was an adventure that started last Friday when I drove down to Mitchell County, Georgia (about as far Southwest as you can go in the state and not be in Florida or Alabama). I drove down to see a habeas client for final preparations for what would have been a habeas corpus hearing in that county this morning. On the way south on the interstate were drivers headed out of Florida about driving about about 10 miles per hour. So, I saw my client and headed back north via backroads. I received an email about the time I arrived back that there would be no court in Mitchell County on Tuesday due to the hurricane. Mitchell was my only court appearance this week.

Other colleagues were not so lucky. Eventually most of the courts were canceled for Monday and Tuesday. But what I noticed was a lack of any kind of uniform coherent way to know. In one court, some of the judges canceled but others were holding out. And when the announcements went out, there was no system. In some instances, the president of the local bar broke the news. In others, there was an announcement on the Court’s website. Some courts, though, either have no website or a very bare bones one. And my colleagues who had administrative hearings were struggling even more. I saw no end of email, group texts, tweets, Facebook posts, and instagram posts from lawyers trying to figure out what to do. And for every lawyer wondering what to do, there were witnesses, experts, court reporters, and staff trying to figure out what they should do with their time.

Georgia has almost 200 counties, each function in their own little world. And in many of those counties there are individual judges who function in their own sub-kingdom.

As we clean up tree limbs and wait for utilities to come back on, we should take stock at how poorly organized out courts are in announcing cancelations for inclement weather. And perhaps now would be a good time to develop a system or centralized place to turn for information so that we are not trying to tune in to the grapevine to figure out. Why would we worry on Sunday night as Irma was inching its way toward us? Because every lawyer has appropriate anxiety regarding that one mercurial judge we know who might Order us to appear on penalty of contempt even if the route to court were paved through three funnel clouds. With a uniform system, we wouldn’t need to guess.

Irma Update

Posted in Uncategorized

Our office is structurally fine, but our power is out. It also appears that our phones are out. If you are trying to to reach us today, please email me at I am checking email frequently there. Work has not stopped though. I have sought out the friendly dry environs of a coffee shop with wifi. And I am hard at work on transcripts, briefs, and hearing preparation.


Today’s Talk on Wellness for Lawyers

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship, Coaching

We, as a profession, are not doing well. A very large percentage of us are suffering from significant mental health issues. We are one of the top five professions for rates of suicide. And many of us battle significant substance abuse issues. Today, Bob Rubin and I gave one of the most significnt CLE talks I have ever given. And our topic was what lawyers can do to better cope with stress. We were slated to talk about an entirely different talk and made a gametime decision to switch it up. Bob had a Powerpoint from a previous talk on this topic, and I had information because this topic has been of personal interest to me for quite some time. For those who attended today for for everyone else, I want to provide more information and some links.

  • Running. Running has pretty much saved my life. About 3 years ago, I was about as unhealthy has I have ever been. My weight had peaked. My suit buttons had not seen their buttonholes in quite some time. I came home and zoned out. I was irritable and unhappy. On a friend’s recommendation, I downloaded a couch to 5k app for my phone. I did the program. And I ran a 5k. Then I ran another. And I did another. I’ve since run a full marathon and a few half marathons. I am currently getting ready to run another full marathon in Chattanooga in October I owe my health and sanity to running. For me, it has made all the differene.
  • Meditation. Equally important to me has been meditaiton. A year ago, I put the Headspace app on my phone after hearing a TED talk for its creator. This app is absolutely the best. But, in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a change in my meditation practice. I want more silence and less of a guiding voice. On a friend’s recommenation, I downloaded Enso, a meditation timer. When I spoke with Bob about meditation, he said he considered himself to be an unsuccessful meditator because he can never focuse on the breath and lots of thougths pop up. But I told him what I’ve heard in a few places. If a meditation session produces only a minute of focus, then it was a good session. Noticing all the thoughts is a big part of the value of the exercise. The value in the excercise may be simply noting all the thought in an observational way.
  • Email Practices. I’ve blogged about this topic before. But email will kill you by a thousand cuts if you constantly check it. I don’t. I use two services for email. One is called SaneBox, which clears out a bunch of the clutter before I check it. The other is InBox Pause, which holds email out of my inbox until I schedule it to come in. Right now, email comes in at 4:00 p.m. on Monday through Friday. I process and take my email to zero for about 30 minutes to an hour. After clearing out the email, I return calls. If something important is going on, I will suspend that pratice from time to time (if I’m in a plea negotiation, for instance). This practice is entirely in keeping with a lawyer’s duty to communicate with a client. Our job is to provide the client with the necessary information to make informed decisions, to respond to reasonable requests for information, and to keep the client apprised regarding my strategy on the case. The Bar does not require me to be on 24/7 call, interrupt family time, or to answer messages instantly at all hours. And If I did that, I would not get much case work done. I highly recommend, by the way, Cal Newport’s Deep Work, on this topic.
  • Journaling. This never came up, but I meant to cover it. I spend thirty minutes every day writing whatever comes to mind. Sometimes what I write generates a great idea. But more often than not, the activity clears the cruft out of my mind. The app I use is DayOne. All the posts live in the cloud and sync among my devices. But I’ve also done this activity on a yellow legal pad.

I’ll repeat here what I said today, No client, no judge, opposing counsel, or case is worth my health. And if you make being a great lawyer your second or third priority, you are more to be a great lawyer because you will have the health and heart to reach your professional goals.

Why Do This Job?: Reflections on my 1,000th CLE Talk

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

Greetings from the Cordele, Georgia, Cracker Barrel. I am out and about and doing some client interviews today. Yesterday, I spoke to a group of law students about criminal defense. As is often the case, I was the only private practitioner on the panel. I am what is known in the biz as a “paid lawyer.” A big part of the talk was the topic of how we came to be in our current job. And that topic boils down to “why do you do what you do?”

The talk took a familiar turn. The best public defenders I know are quite passionate about helping the forgotten and the oppressed. A comment was even made at one point that money should not motivate a person to enter criminal practice. In my many years of speaking on panels, I’ve generally fallen victim to groupthink. And I’ve tried (probably unconvincingly) to say essentially “me, too.”

I am not being critical of the idea of passion for the oppressed as a motive for practicing law. Certainly, I would hope that every public defender feels that call.

But it is not authentic for me to say that such a passion drives me. And I think I’ve come out of some talks feeling slightly “off ” about things either because I said something I didn’t quite feel in my gut or because I felt guilty for not feeling a sense of passion for the poor in my legal practice. Come to think of it, if I felt such a drive, I would betray it every time I collect a fee or refuse to take on a case pro bono.

When it came my turn to speak I was more honest than I had been at a talk like this. I said that I think litigation is incredibly fun and intellectually challenging. I said that I like winning. And I find a sense of joy from dismantling a criminal conviction, working on an important case, and eviscerating a statute on constitutional grounds. What I didn’t say but should have said was that I am, in fact, motivated to do well financially in the practice/business of law.

I have always handled a few court appointed cases a year. But I have always viewed those cases as an opportunity to compete, litigation and try my best to win. I treat those cases just like retained cases. Why do I take them? Often, I do so to gain experience in an area (I’m developing a Federal practice, so I am doing more CJA work presently) to expand the range of cases I take on a retained basis. And sometimes the judge or the public defender entices me with a cool issue or some cool feature in the case. Alas, I have not taken an appointed case because of some social committment to the oppressed. It is great when that happens, but I cannot say that it is central to my thinking.

To take it a step further, I cannot think of motivation to be great at being a criminal defense attorney that is bad as long as it is consisted with the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, the Constitution, and the laws of the Federal and Georgia government. But I think our CLE and educational system suggests that one motivation outranks them all or that some are not valid and should induce guilt.

As a result, our schools and CLEs don’t often address topics such as how to set a fee, how to manage a law office, or how to responsibly and professionally market your practice. So, there is a cottage industry of snake oil salesmen out there who are not giving good advice. Meanwhile, at our CLEs we get a steady diet of the one true valid motivation to be great at criminal defense. This motivation is the one that is served.

Even worse, our very best and brightest law students may be deciding to do some other kind of law because they don’t feel that they have a pure motive to do it. I’m going to be up front with my motivations in the future and am going to stop feeling guilty about them.



The Self Talk Treadmill

Posted in Coaching

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.

Look at Your Approach and not Just Your Result

Posted in Uncategorized

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.