The Importance of Being a Five-Tool Player: Skills Young Lawyers Need to Succeed

The Importance of Being a Five-Tool Player: Skills Young Lawyers Need to Succeed

Being a young attorney is difficult. Success depends on having the right skillset. This includes tools relevant to the job of being an attorney, but also tools that will allow you to do the job effectively. In this article I’ve compiled a few skills that have most helped me during my career so far. And because like all lawyers I shamelessly steal better ideas from people smarter than me, I’ve adopted a phrase I learned from former First District Court of Appeal Judge James R. Wolf: to succeed you want to be what in baseball they call a five-tool player. That is, someone who can hit for a good batting average, can hit for power, has good speed, can play defense, and has a throwing arm to back it all up. I’ve done my best to match these skills to an analogous one any young lawyer should have. If you can master them all, you’ll make it into the litigating hall of fame.

Hitting for average — Time management

Any ballplayer who wants a high batting average will need to be both consistent with their swings and effective at the plate. The same is true for attorneys and time management. Consistently getting tasks done on time and being effective in how you manage the time allotted for any given matter are crucial to making sure you do not get overwhelmed by other assignments. There is no perfect system, and if you ask ten lawyers how to best manage your time, you’re likely to get ten different answers. What’s important is figuring out what works for you. This will probably take some trial and error, especially early in your career, but once you have a system down, stick with it. Consistency in practice means when something inevitably occurs to disrupt your schedule, you can handle it effectively and not let down your coworkers or your clients.

Hitting for power — Control what’s within your power

Any baseball player will tell you that you cannot hit a home run every time you’re at the plate. Being able to hit for power means having a good eye for pitches. In law, that means controlling what you can by having a good enough eye to see your case for what it is. Sometimes you will have a case where the facts are against you. Sometimes the law is not on your side. Sometimes you have uncooperative opposing counsel. Generally speaking, these things are all outside your control. But you don’t hit a home run by swinging wildly at pitches you can’t hit, and you don’t hit a home run in court by making arguments that have no foundation, attacking opposing counsel or their clients, or trying to put lipstick on the proverbial pig. At the end of the day, you can only control what’s within your power to control, and that means doing the best you can with what you have.

Speed — Don’t be afraid to say “Yes”

Having speed is important, but it doesn’t mean much if you’re afraid to use it. That means having the courage to try and steal a base when you can. As a young attorney, that means being unafraid to try something new. If offered the chance to work in a subject matter you know nothing about, it may seem like a daunting request. But some of the most enriching experiences I’ve had in my career have been because I was willing to say yes to an assignment or case, despite no prior background in the area. Sure, this meant I made the occasional mistake as I learned new fields of law; but I was fortunate to have supervisors and mentors who were willing to help me along the way, step in to fix my errors, and help me learn. You won’t always safely steal a base and sometimes you’ll get tagged out, but having confidence in your abilities and in yourself is an essential part of the trade. So if the coach is waving you around third base, don’t be afraid to go for home plate.

Defense – Learn when to say “No”

Hitting and speed are great, but no baseball team can win with just offense; a good defense matters just as much. Just as being confident enough to say “yes” when offered new challenges is critical, it’s equally important to know when to say “no.” As a young attorney, your time will be in short supply and if you don’t take care of yourself, burnout is a real possibility. Many lawyers are unwilling to acknowledge the stress that comes with the job, despite the fact attorneys suffer from stress-related issues at higher rates than other professions. There are only so many (billable) hours in the day, and you will be far more valuable during those hours if you are actually functioning. As tempting as it is to accept every new assignment and case, and agree to every request from a supervisor, and jump at every opportunity coming your way, one of the best ways you can play defense for your own health can be knowing when to say no. You will be better off for it, and in turn so will your work product and ability to deliver for your clients.

Throwing — Be the kind of lawyer others want to work with

Every baseball team wants a pitcher who can throw a 100 MPH fastball. In the same vein, there’s a certain kind of lawyer with whom everyone wants to work. The kind who responds to emails quickly. The attorney whose work product doesn’t need to be extensively edited before filing. The person who remembers the little details and doesn’t forget what’s on their calendar. And while there’s no perfect formula on what makes you an attorney others want to work with, it’s usually pretty obvious the kind of lawyer you don’t want to be. The person who only responds after multiple reminders. The attorney who’s constantly requesting extensions of time to complete assignments. Someone who stretches the bounds of what it means to litigate in good faith. No one wants to be this attorney, and they are definitely not the type you want to work with (or against). Cultivating an effective fastball doesn’t happen overnight; similarly, building a reputation as a lawyer others want to work with takes time and effort. But the rewards of doing so are great and will last your entire career.

Ultimately, it’s up to you what skills you want to develop as a young attorney. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I cannot claim to have even mastered the ones covered here. Becoming a five-tool player is a never-ending journey, not an end point. So too is becoming a well-rounded attorney. As someone just starting out, you will have plenty of opportunities for success. By investing in the skills covered here and by striving to be the ballplayer everyone on your team knows they can count on, when a tricky issue comes across the plate you’ll be ready to knock it out of the park.

This article was originally published in the Trial Advocate, Volume 42, No 3, a publication of the Florida Defense Lawyers Association, and is republished here with permission.