Can John Wooden's Seven Principles Make You a Better Lawyer?

Can John Wooden's Seven Principles Make You a Better Lawyer?

The airwaves on Saturday were filled with the sad news of the death of John Wooden, legendary coach of the UCLA basketball team.

I’m not a huge sports fan, but as I began to hear the reports detailing Coach Wooden’s life and achievements (including 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years), I couldn’t help but see how the mindset and advice he brought to coaching (he preferred to call it “teaching”) could really benefit practicing lawyers, too.

According to many of the news reports, Coach Wooden lived by seven principles which his father gave to him upon his completion of grammar school.  But what do these principles that served a basketball coach so well have to do with success in practicing law, and how can you put them to work in your practice?  Here they are, with my take on them:

1.  Be true to yourself. It’s never difficult to find articles about “hot” practice areas, and many people these days head to law school specifically with the idea that it’s the path to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Lawyers who follow their passion, whether it’s indigent criminal defense, protecting the rights of consumers, animal law or drafting complex transactional documents, are almost always happier (and isn’t that the real measure of success?) than lawyers who dislike the work they do and the clients they do it for.

2.  Make each day your masterpiece. Although it’s always wise to plan for the future, don’t let an obsession with tomorrow consume you.  Apply your time and creative energy to doing the best work you can do – today.  Think of each day as the only canvas you’ll ever have, plan your work, and let your priorities keep you focused to deliver a masterpiece at the end of the day – whatever practice areas you choose.

3.  Help others. All of us feel like we are too busy most of the time, but there’s still always a minute to answer a question for a new lawyer, reassure an anxious client, or give a staff member an “attaboy.”  When your time in the practice of law is up, few will remember how many cases you won or lost, but those you made time for or were kind to will never forget it – or you.

4.  Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. Just as man does not live by bread alone, neither do lawyers live solely by the law.  Take a little time each day to read something non-legal that you’re interested in.  Not only will you be more interesting to be around, but you’ll never feel completely out of control of your life and your time if you have a half hour reading oasis to look forward to every day.

5.  Make friendship a fine art. Think beyond networking.  Take the time to really get to know well a few other people that you admire – especially a few non-lawyers – and spend time with them regularly.  Make a point to keep in touch, even when time is tight.  As the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and the time you invest in building true friendships with a few people who are really worthy of the trouble will be a tremendous support through good times and bad.

6.  Build a shelter against a rainy day. Lawyers tend to think that they must present a certain image, and that usually involves expensive clothes, cars and houses.  Make saving rather than conspicuous consumption your priority, especially when times are good.  If you’ve lived any length of time at all, you know they won’t always be.

7.  Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day. Regardless of your religious beliefs, or even if you have none at all, spend a little time every day thinking about what is going right in your practice and your life.  Studies have shown that people who concentrate on what is going right are much happier and consider themselves more successful than those who spend all their time obsessing about what could be better.  Optimism is not a natural component of the average lawyer’s personality but, fortunately, is is a skill that can be learned with a little effort.

The large majority of men and women whom society comes to truly admire for their accomplishments never set out to be admired.  They just followed their dreams.  You can, too.