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Making the Playoffs: Baseball and Big Law

The Cubs may offer lessons that go beyond baseball

This article originally appeared in The American Lawyer on Oct. 16, 2015.

By Steven J. Harper

Watching the Chicago Cubs make their way into the National League Championship Series causes me to reflect on one of my favorite themes: baseball as a metaphor for life. It might have something to tell big law firms, too.

I focus on the Chicago Cubs because I’ve watched the team since the season began. Before giving up on them several years ago, I was a fan for three decades that started with the birth of our first child in 1981. He and his siblings qualify as long-suffering lifetime fans. For many years, we had season tickets.

As an adult, I knew little of Cubs’ fan angst because I grew up in Minneapolis—an American League city where some of the best entertainment was watching then-Twins coach Billy Martin get thrown out of games during the team’s 1965 pennant run. (Famously, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in game one of that World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. He then won games five and seven—pitching complete game shutouts in both.)

After years of Cubs frustration, what’s working now? That’s where parallels to Big Law emerge.

Talent

The Cubs have stars on their roster. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant have become household names in Chicago and beyond. As in a law firm, talent is a necessary condition for success.

But talent alone is not sufficient. Just ask former partners of Dewey & LeBoeuf—a firm loaded with talent.

Depth

When shortstop Addison Russell went down with a pulled hamstring in game three of the National League Division Series, Cubs fans gasped. But the team didn’t fold. Javier Baez was ready to take the field. In game four of the series, Baez hit a three-run homer that turned the tide in the Cubs’ favor.

At shortstop—and every other position—the Cubs have a backup plan. According to Altman Weil’s 2015 Report, “Law Firms In Transition,” only 31 percent of law firms have a formal succession planning process in place.

Most Big Law firm partners resist transition because it vests younger attorneys with the power to claim a share of client billings. Likewise, most firms offer no financial incentive for partners to mentor young attorneys. There’s no way to bill that time.

Attitude

From July through September and into early October, Cubs ace pitcher Jake Arrieta seemed unstoppable. Then he gave up four runs in the first five innings of League Division Series game three. Relief pitchers stepped in, and Cubs hitters stepped up. The Cubs won 8-6.

In postgame interviews following game four, the latest Cubs phenomenon, Kyle Schwarber, echoed what many other players said: “We pick each other up. When one guys is off, others step up. We have each other’s back.”

At many big firms, some partners seem determined to put sharp objects into the backs of their fellow partners.

Leadership

Cubs manager Joe Maddon doesn’t offer brash, self-aggrandizing remarks. He leads by quiet example. He expects players to do their best on the field, but he encourages balance in their lives. To emphasize his point, sometimes he cancels batting practice, especially if the team is in a hitting slump. He wants them thinking about other things.

Sometimes he locks the clubhouse door until two or three hours before game time. Don’t show up early; you won’t have anything to do when you get there. Maddon wants them to develop lives beyond the field. Imagine a Big Law partner telling associates to go home at five or six o’clock—and to not bill any time after they get there.

Maddon models behavior aimed at achieving balance. Before the season began, he took a dozen players to visit children at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Throughout the year, Anthony Rizzo, a cancer survivor, made similar trips to hospitals. So did Chris Coghlan and many of his teammates.

Culture

Maddon loves the game. He wants everyone around him to love it, too. He keeps the team loose. Sometimes he manages the team like a little league coach, moving players into different positions. Schwarber was behind the plate one game and in the outfield the next; Coghlan played five different positions in a single game; Bryant played four.

Humor is one of Maddon’s principal weapons. At the end of September, he brought exotic animals into the clubhouse. During the pregame media session, he talked to a flamingo named Warren.

“When is the last time you heard about 20-somethings who couldn’t wait to get to work?” Cubs president Theo Epstein asked one interviewer after the game that propelled the Cubs into the League Championship Series.

Perhaps most importantly, Maddon wants players to remember why they chose baseball as a career. Then they’ll realize that they should be enjoying themselves. Many lawyers could benefit from similar introspection.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed practicing law. But I’m sure glad that I spent time coaching all of my kids’ baseball and softball teams—more than 25 in all. Good luck to any young Big Law attorney who tries to replicate that feat today. Make the effort. It’s worth it.

- Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University School of Law and author of "The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis."

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