ABA: What principle links great baseball and great lawyering? Stoicism

Sateesh Nori

Sateesh Nori

ABA | What principle links great baseball and great lawyering? Stoicism
September 18th, 2018
by Sateesh Nori

In July while watching my local New York Mets get massacred 25-4 by the mediocre Washington Nationals, the nadir was to see shortstop Jose Reyes play pitcher and give up 10 RBIs over 48 pitches. While the team was losing badly anyway, it was humiliating to watch Reyes fail in this way.

Late in his career Willie Mays was also a Met. Roger Angell wrote in 1971 about a 40-year-old Mays:

“He may have lost a half-second or so in getting down to first base, but I doubt whether Willie Davis or Ralph Garr or any of the other new flashes can beat Mays from first to third, or can accelerate just as he does … how much he resembles a marvelous skier in midturn down some steep pitch of fast powder. Nobody like him.”

Willie Mays was the arguably one of the best ever. In different seasons, he led the league in average, home runs and steals, all while playing the best center field of all time—and he did this as an African-American athlete at a time when baseball was still segregated, when he faced boos from the stands, when he had to stay in a different hotel from his white teammates.

Watching that Mets game made me reflect on failure and its elusive opposite. I thought about what it would mean to possess the most essential tools for success as a lawyer and how one would maintain those skills over a long legal career. What does it take? What made Willie Mays so good for such a long period of time?

I argue here that there is a principle that links great baseball and good lawyering: stoicism. Perhaps Willie Mays was a stoic: He focused on what he was good at—baseball. He was virtuous about his craft.

A baseball player decides when to take a pitch, when to make contact, and when to swing for the fences. A successful hitter will bat .300, meaning he will hit 30 percent of the time he is at bat. This low percentage reflects the difficulty of hitting a round ball at full speed with a round bat. Good hitters focus on technique, such as their stance, their grip on the bat and their read of the ball in flight. They block out the noise, the lights, the crowds and the pressure of big moments. Willie Mays for one had a consistent, smooth swing that many consider to be among the best of all time.

A 2010 profile of Mays in the New York Times describes him as “famously unanalytical, unwilling to dwell on the unpleasant and a steadfast sidestepper of controversy, Mays remains wary of potentially loaded questions.”

An old lawyer once told me that he had been practicing law for 40 years, but he never lost a case. He did, however, “come in second many times.” Like a batter at bat, a lawyer must make decisions. The challenge for a lawyer is to make the right decision more often than not.

For example, in my practice as a legal services attorney, I’m forced to make decisions about who I will represent and how much work I will put into their case. These triage decisions can have dramatic impacts on the lives of clients. And as a manager of a legal services office, my decisions on what types cases our office will take on can impact families, neighborhoods and communities.

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine, a philosophy professor at Wright State University, channeled the Greek philosopher Epictetus, writing of the “dichotomy of control.” This is the idea that there are things over which we have control (our thoughts and actions) and things over which we have no control (the thoughts and actions of other people). Epictetus says of the latter, “They are nothing to me.” This focus on what is possible and what is controllable is the key to longevity and success in a career in the law.

Unfortunately for many lawyers the idea that there is anything over which we don’t have control is impossible to accept. Lawyers tend to seek control, and those who become lawyers already have this affliction. As a result, most lawyers lead lives of anxiety and stress, which they counter by seeking increasing levels of control over their work.

In my practice, I try to tune out those factors over which I have no control. I can’t control the mood, bias or disposition of a judge on any given day. I can’t control the subway delays as I travel to court. I can’t control the actions of my client or my adversary. Instead, I focus on what I understand to be the relevant law, prepare my client as best as I can, and give my best effort. Once I conclude a case, I try not to dwell on alternate outcomes or what-ifs. This enables me to move on to the next case or next issue.

Mays once said: “In order to excel, you must be completely dedicated to your chosen sport. You must also be prepared to work hard and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Without 100 percent dedication, you won’t be able to do this.” It is this awareness of the rules, the subtleties and skills that made Mays so great.

Similarly, Epictetus wrote: “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” In his Discourses, Epictetus wrote of the ideal role of a person:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession [epangelia] of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.”

As lawyers, we overvalue our judgment. We inflate our importance in a cause or a case. Although we have an ethical duty to zealously advocate for our clients, we believe that we are acting in our client’s best interest even when we are clearly acting to aggrandize or enrich ourselves. Also, our legal education tends to favor a classical, rules-based approach to decision making.

Still, there seems to be room for a broader, stoic approach to exercising legal judgment. As noted by Angela Burton, political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, “Given the prevalence of influences other than rights, powers and obligations derived from formal legal rules, the notion that lawyer’s judgment can be either truly ‘independent’ or ‘professional’ without reference to the potential impact of social, cultural and structural factors operating within the situation appears untenable.”

The challenge appears to be to apply rational judgment both with and without the prejudices that we bring with us as human beings, to exercise control when it counts. This is the struggle of the stoic lawyer. I hope to be more Mays and less Reyes.