Good lessons for attorneys from John Wooden, a coach's coach

By Ed Poll

The Daily Record Newswire

To call someone a "lawyer's lawyer" is a high compliment on that person's legal skill.

To me, as a coach to the legal profession, UCLA's basketball legend John Wooden was a "coach's coach."

Coach Wooden, who passed away earlier this year just shy of his 100th birthday, had a great impact on me as a UCLA alum.

He was a teacher, revered for his refreshingly pure and simple principles. These values guided everything he did, from helping young players become principled adults to motivating executive teams to work together toward a higher purpose.

Here is a typical example of that directness and simplicity.

My son went to two of his clinics during his coaching tenure. The only part of the clinic he allowed parents to watch was his famous teaching of how to dress. He made all the kids take off their shoes and socks, and taught them how to put them on.

He said basketball is played on your feet ... and if you get blisters on your feet, you can't play. If you can't play, you may hurt your team. Always the team orientation.

Such fundamentals of preparation are embodied in Coach Wooden's warning, which I frequently quote, that "failure to plan is planning to fail."

He was known for reciting his father's "two sets of three" -- "never lie, never cheat, never steal" and "don't whine, don't complain, don't make excuses." The point Wooden used most in his coaching, he said, was "make each day your masterpiece."

He preached the kind of excellence that inspired his teams to win a mind-boggling seven straight NCAA championships and 88 consecutive regular season games.

"Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable," Wooden once said in explaining such performance.

Several years ago, after I watched UCLA grind out a victory in a game they should have lost, I thought of this lesson in connection with a client who asked me to do a profitability analysis of her small firm.

She and her partner believed that their expenses were too high. My review of the data showed that the firm was in sound financial shape.

The lawyers needed more revenue, and had the resources to pursue it. My recasting of their expenses helped convince them that they were not in terrible shape and that they could succeed.

That kind of confidence provides the mental toughness to continue seeking the appropriate client base to generate increased revenue. Looking at the data positively removed the fear of failure and created confidence in success.

People sometimes speak of the "circle of life," in which you start in the world as a baby dependent on others and end with similar dependency in old age.

But, there is a difference. When you enter the world, you can grow, learn, develop and contribute to others.

By the time you are on the other side of the spectrum (a straight line, not a circle), you have had the opportunity to contribute mightily to the betterment of others in many ways.

John Wooden was such a contributor.

"Don't look at the scoreboard," was one of his maxims. When you are busy contributing, the score will always be in your favor.

Ed Poll J.D., M.B.A., CMC is the principal of LawBiz® Management, a national law firm practice management consultancy based in Venice, California. For more information, visit his Web site or email him at

Published: Thu, Sep 30, 2010


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