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How College Football Has Made Me a Better Lawyer

By Francisco Ramos Jr.

I don’t follow sports much. I can’t tell you what baseball teams are in the hunt for a playoff berth, nor which players play on which pro football teams, nor, for that matter, what to expect this coming NBA season. However, I do follow college football, follow it religiously, and to put a finer point on it, I follow one of the lesser known conferences, the Sun Belt Conference. Sure, I watch the ACC, the Big Ten, and, of course, the SEC, but I have a soft spot for the Sun Belt because Florida International University (FIU) is my alma mater.

I have learned a lot following the Golden Panthers—a young school with a young football program (only in its eighth year)—and college football in general. Many of the values and principles that carry the team from one week of their season to the next are the same ones that make us better lawyers.

It seems unnecessary to say that one can learn teamwork from a team sport. But there is something different about college football. Unlike the pros, there are no million-dollar contracts, no endorsement deals, no mega egos, and no room for “I” or “me.” To win on the field, all the players have to subjugate their interests to those of the team.

Likewise, to win at litigation you need to learn your role on the litigation team, learn what you’re expected to contribute, and learn how you can enhance the team and the play of your teammates—from the other attorneys to the paralegals, the staff, and even the client and the experts you retain. Winning a case, like winning a football game, is a team effort. College football has taught me it’s not all about me. In fact, it’s not about me at all. In the end, the team wins or loses, not you.

Watch any college game and listen to how often the announcers talk about a team’s leaders—who the leaders are, how important strong leadership is, how you want a strong leader in the huddle running the offense, and how leadership makes the difference between winning and losing. Just as teamwork is important in a law firm—with everyone playing his or her role—leadership is important to help others make the most of their talents and make the most of their role in the firm.

A leader doesn’t have to be the best at everything. True leaders rarely are. They simply have to help others identify and develop their strengths. Real leaders help others find the places on a team or at a law firm where they can thrive, they equip them to do so, and help them maximize their contribution to the group. That’s the difference between winning and losing on the field and the difference between winning and losing in the courtroom.

College players are excited to take the field. They come out of the tunnel screaming and yelling, run onto the field, and are ready to give their all. They give everything on every play and keep pushing forward until the whistle blows. It comes down to one word—heart. With it, you can exceed your talent and your limitations and outplay and outsmart your opponent. Learn to tackle your cases with passion, and that heart will give you an enormous advantage over your opponent in the court room.

Winning a national championship, a conference championship, or even one game requires commitment. It requires hitting the weight room early in the mornings, working hard on the practice field in the afternoons, and watching countless of hours of game footage.

Likewise, becoming an impact lawyer takes time and commitment. It takes time going beyond the minimum of CLE credits and mandatory training and education. It takes time reviewing others’ transcripts from depositions and trials, time to read books on cross-examination techniques and trial practice, time to read the advance sheets and legal periodicals, and time to discuss best practices with your colleagues. To be the best takes commitment, and commitment means outworking your opponent. When he’s watching TV reruns at night, you’re reading that new case or law review article that is going to help you win next week’s hearing.

There will be times when you will fail. You will lose hearings, ask the wrong questions at deposition, or miss the mark on a motion or memorandum. Likewise, players may miss a tackle, blow their coverage, or trip and let a running back get by with the ball. The player who falls, though, gets up. He has more plays ahead of him. He sticks with it and learns from his mistakes. Learn from yours. Often, the skills you develop were born of mistakes that you felt defined you as inept. Let go of defining yourself by your failures. Embrace these failures as tools of growth.

On a football team, everyone has a position. A team performs well when each player plays the position for which he is best suited; the person best suited for quarterback plays quarterback. Likewise, as a lawyer, you need to learn what your strengths are and play to those strengths. Some lawyers are great orators. Some are great writers. Some are rainmakers. Some are great leaders. You need to learn where your talents lie, develop them, and use them to maximize your contribution to your firm and to your clients.

College football is exciting because college football coaches take more risks than pro coaches. They’re more likely to go for it on fourth down, more likely to try a fake punt, more likely to throw the ball down the field, and more likely to try a new and innovative play. Sometimes the risks pay off and sometimes they don’t. But when they pay off, they generally pay off big. There is a time and a place to take risks in litigation. Granted, it can backfire. And risks should only be taken after consulting the client and the other players on the team. But there are times that they should be taken and taken with gusto.

Every week, college football players have to take the field and face an opponent. What spectators fail to appreciate, however, is that in addition to the daily grind and dedication to football practice, they are full-time students. In fact, they are—and should be—students first and foremost. To balance school and football requires an ability to balance priorities. Likewise, we lawyers have priorities to juggle—working on our cases, being involved in our communities, assuming leadership roles in voluntary bar associations, and, most importantly, being active members of our families. The first step is to appreciate that priorities can be juggled; the second to learn how.

Before teams settle into their conference schedules, many play non conference teams. Many teams in the Sun Belt Conference, particularly FIU, play tough non-conference teams. For example, FIU played Alabama, currently a highly ranked team in the country. Later in the season, FIU plays the University of Florida, the top-ranked team in the country. It would be easier to play more evenly matched teams. It would be easier still to play inferior teams. But by facing tough challenges, by facing battles they should not win and likely will not, the players and coaches build character, they learn to face adversity, and their mettle, integrity, and maturity are tested and developed.

As a lawyer, you must not shy away from the tough cases. When your firm gives you an opportunity to tackle tough issues, critical hearings, or tricky depositions, you must rise to meet the challenge. Of course, that means you will have to prepare harder, spend some late nights and possibly some weekends at the office, but by doing so you will develop your skills and build your confidence by knowing that you can face the giants and go the distance.

When a quarterback enters the huddle, the other players have to look at him and believe. They have to believe that the quarterback can march them down the field and enable them to score. And for the players to believe in the quarterback, the quarterback must first believe in himself.

You need to believe in yourself. You made it through college and through law school. You took the bar exam. You have paid your dues, developed your skills, and evolved into a force with which to be reckoned. You have to believe that you can do the job, and do it well. Because the others at your office—and, more importantly, your client—are in the huddle with you, and they’re looking at you and they want to believe in you. For them to believe you, you have to believe in yourself.

The next time you watch a college football game, remember that a lot of what those players do on the field are things we should be doing in our firms and in the courtroom. Study them and live by their principles. And one last thing: Go Panthers!

Keywords: Litigation, career development

Francisco Ramos Jr. practices with Clarke Silverglate & Campbell in in Miami, Florida.

  • November 11, 2009 – Having played some college football, I appreciate the observations and they are very good. I can say from a player's standpoint that the similarities for those of us in litigation are strong. Blocking, tackling, route running, passing all require technique and practice. You also learn from getting knocked on your ass, getting back up and lining up for the next play while putting the past behind. You also don't win or lose by yourself. Your team of partners, associates, and staff all contribute one way or the other to the final outcome. Being able lead, coordinate the details and keep an eye on the big picture are qualities grow from being on a football team (or any sports team). I've also wrestled, have appreciated the lessons of that sport in the litigation arena. There are many tough times on the field or on the mat. The over-arching lesson is 'deal with it'..

  • January 21, 2010 – Thank you for these gems of wisdom. Often times, we forget these things when we are in the thicket of our respective practices. Great article! Every lawyer should read this


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