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.

paintbrush.JPGWhen I succeed in my brief writing or at oral argument (I measure success by writing a good brief and by fluid conversational delivery at argument — not necessarily by result), it is because I stop to think about my audience. More particularly, I remember that my audience includes a set of staff attorneys and judges or justices with a stack of briefs to read that hopefully don’t look exactly like mine.

An article in today’s legalnewsline.com reminded me of the fact that the people who hear my argument and who read the briefs that I write are people with interests beyond my particular cases. They even have interests beyond the law. 

According to the article, Justice Robert Benham of the Georgia Supreme Court “has his own woodworking shop, [where he makes] objects like toys and music boxes with his two sons.” He also “builds birdhouses for Habitat for Humanity.” 

Those facts humanize him and tell me more than his official biography does. Official biographies, like resumes, start looking the same after a while. But to know that someone makes toys, music boxes, and birdhouses for Habitat tells me that one member of the audience is compassionate. It also tells me that workmanship and craft are important to him. I should be very precise and concise in the future.

Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner make it a point to tell lawyer how important it is to know about your judge before you present your brief, try your case or show up for oral argument. In their book, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges. Scalia and Garner advise:

“learn as much as you readily can about the judge’s background. Say you’re appearing before Judge Florence Kubitzky. With a little computer research and asking around, you discover that fly-fishing is her passion; that her father died when she was only seven; that her paternal grandparents, who were both professors at a local college, took charge of her upbringing; that she once chaired the state Democratic party; that she enjoys bridge … and so on. … you might well find some unpredictable use for this knowledge over the course of a lengthy trial.”

Most importantly, they add, “at the very least, these details will humanize the judge for you, so you will be arguing to a human being instead of a chair.”

Keeping in mind that your audience consists of people and not a judicial machine will help you write better briefs that help them decide the case. If yours is the 53rd brief in a stack of 100 that looks exactly like the others, then your judge might get bored, might skim your text, or might just affirm the conviction because that is a nice safe default. 

Of course, not all judicial hobbies are good. I suppose that when you find bad hobbies, you have a nice new enumeration of error to raise for your client and and the opportunity for a new judge with a healthy life and more wholesome hobbies.