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What lawyers can learn from little league baseball

|Written By Lee Cutforth
What lawyers can learn from little league baseball

My 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, loves to play baseball. This past year, she found herself as the only girl on her little league team, and one of the few girls in the entire league. Observing her over the course of that season, I was able to reflect on some of the struggles she was facing as a girl in a sport dominated by boys, and as a bit of an innocent, unaccustomed to the intensely competitive attitude that often is found even at the level of little league.

Those reflections, on the challenges and some of the lessons that I hoped that she was learning, became focused in June of last year. Her team, the Blue Jays, played in a division tournament that few observers expected them to win. Yet, in an underdog, come-from-behind, bottom-of-the-last-inning squeaker that could have been a Disney movie script, the Jays won the championship.

A couple of days later, contemplating the victory photograph of my daughter’s team, I was reminded that many of the lessons my daughter learned that season were not just about sports. Rather, they were life principles that were helping her to mature and grow — to become the kind of person she was meant to be.

It also began to dawn on me that those lessons were just as applicable to my own august profession. Perhaps, even as lawyers, we could stand to learn a thing or two — or at least be reminded of a thing or two — from kids playing baseball, principles that would help us become better people and then, better lawyers.

Lesson No. 1: The other side can always win

My daughter’s team’s tournament win is a classic illustration of this principle. This point is an adaptation of writer Paul Wells’ brilliant observation on politics. Like most truths, it has universal application to any realm, be it politics, baseball or the profession of law.

What many of us need to accept is that no matter how righteous our cause, no matter how diligent our research, no matter how brilliant our logic, or inspiring our rhetoric, the other side is never so young, inexperienced, old, senile, stupid, lazy, or ugly that they cannot rise up like the Fist of God (to use Mr. Wells’ phrase) and hand your pride to you on a silver platter.

This overlooked truth should bring to each of us a sense of greater humility. Then we may be able to concede that we don’t always “have it in the bag,” perhaps we may just be out-manoeuvred, we can always strive to do better, that perhaps the other side deserves a measure of our respect.

Lesson No. 2: The importance of discipline

See lesson No. 1. Because the other side can always win, we must avoid the complacency that comes from excessive self-confidence. On the day of the championship game, my daughter’s coach had the team show up an hour early, to go through their drills. The opposing team — the odds-on favourite — straggled in to the ballpark over the course of that hour. Their whole team was not there until about 15 minutes before game time. It was obvious they were taking a win for granted.

But, as my daughter’s team began to first, stay within striking distance, then to hold their own, and finally, to pull ahead, you could see the players on the opposing team begin to lose their confidence. There is no doubt they were talented, but their talent-based version of excellence faded when it faced an excellence based on discipline and preparation. Because they never considered lesson No. 1, they minimized the importance of lesson No. 2.

True excellence is not based on inherent talent, or even a winning record. Rather, it arises out of personal will — the will to be fully prepared. That leads to an earned respect, from those we serve as lawyers, as well as those we may oppose.

Lesson No. 3: Rules is rules

Baseball is the poetry of sports, but that artistry cloaks a game of statistics and rules. Baseball’s reverence for the rule book is not dissimilar from our own profession’s respect for the rules of court or the rule of precedence in the common law. Rules support order, consistency, and predictability.

If we, as practitioners, disregard the rules of our profession, even the often-unwritten rules of courtesy and grace, we risk showing distain for the process of law. Remember that sometimes the how is at least as important as the what.

Lesson No. 4: Someone is always watching

When my daughter’s unlikely team won the championship, some parents reported seeing the coach of the opposing team angrily throwing his consolation prize in the team dugout. I remember seeing something similar, as a first-year lawyer walking on a downtown sidewalk. I passed a commissionaire, attempting to give a parking ticket to a distinguished white-haired man. The white-haired man was having his own fit, and yelled at the commissionaire: “You can’t do this to me! Do you know who I am? I’m a lawyer!”

What must that display have done for other observers on the street, to that man’s reputation, but also to his profession? We must realize that for all of the people we interact with, our actions speak not only to our own character, but also to the character of our profession. Being known as men and women of grace and courtesy cannot help but affect the public image of our profession, as well as our individual reputations.

The point of this article is not to provide a magic public relations formula for the legal profession. Rather, it is to try to increase awareness of and appreciation for the role each of us plays as an individual in establishing and maintaining the honour of the legal profession. Let me offer a final illustration in this regard.

My daughters do not understand lawyer jokes. They simply don’t “get it.” The reason they don’t get it is that in the life of their father, flawed though he is, they do not see the cutting stereotypes upon which most lawyer jokes are based. Instead, they see someone who works hard, and tries to live a life of honour and good character. In the family sphere, as well as the broader sphere of my world, my life as an individual inevitably influences how those around me see the legal profession.

While representative responses and programs from our law societies and other professional bodies have a vital role in maintaining and promoting the reality of honourable service within our profession, we also must be cognizant of the role each of us plays individually. By our words and actions in everyday circumstances, we affect how those around us see us personally, and by extension how they view the legal profession. Thus, at least part of the answer to our collective angst over the image of our profession is in the sum of our individual responses to the daily challenges and circumstances we face in our personal lives.

Lee Cutforth currently is engaged in private practice in Lethbridge, Alta. He serves as consultant to a number of non-profit organisations, and as chairman of the local Subdivision and Development Appeal Board. He can be reached at lcutforth@lethbridgelawyers.com.

  • Lawyer

    Jeremy Martin
    As a father and coach of a couple of girls who love to play softball and soccer and as a litigator always striving to win my cases while practicing as honourably and ethically within the rules as I can, your article really hit a "home run" with me. A very well written piece and a good reminder for us all.

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