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Lawyering skills are not just for the courtroom

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’m a high school football official for public and private schools in the Baltimore metro area in addition to being a practicing attorney. I was not a natural-born athlete, so since I was 14 years old I’ve sought ways to stay involved in the sports I loved without being a player. Officiating was the perfect situation to quench my thirst for sports while not needing all of the physical abilities of a player. (That’s not to say we officials are not athletic – take a look at this Wall Street Journal article describing the physical fitness requirements of NFL officials.)

Now, I’m sure many of the readers are thinking “OK, Stuart, you like football. But what does that have to do with being a young lawyer?” The simple answer is, a lot! I have found that many of the skills I use while practicing law are easily transferable to the football field, and vice versa.

As an obvious starter, football at any level is governed by a very strict and detailed set of rules. These rules govern almost every aspect of the game to ensure it is played safely, fairly and properly. Thus, comprehensive knowledge of the rules is a requirement for any official. But, as with any set of rules, they require application and often interpretation. Isn’t that what we as lawyers do every day? The skills I use in applying and interpreting statute and laws are put to direct use when I am applying and interpreting the rules of football. Same skills, different subject matter. (I haven’t found a way to apply the rule of lenity in interpreting the rules of football, but maybe one day!)

Another easily transferable skill between lawyering and football is the ability to think on one’s feet. Attorneys, especially trial attorneys like myself, often have to make split-second decisions and react quickly in the courtroom. Be it deciding whether to object to a question by opposing counsel to a witness or responding to a question from a judge that was not expected or the always dreaded unanticipated exclamation from a witness, attorneys must be able to react in real time. It is axiomatic that sport officials have to do the exact same task, and initially without the aid of video review.

I offer one example from Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. With less than four minutes remaining in the game, New York Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning threw a 45-yard sideline pass to a receiver in double coverage. In a split second, one official, covering three players, was required to determine: (i) if the ball was possessed and secured by the receiver, (ii) if the receiver got both feet in bounds, and (iii) if the receiver maintained complete and continuous control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground while falling out of bounds. Sounds difficult, right? This call required the official to look in two places at once (feet and ball) and determine everyone’s location. In addition, the official was running backwards and looking over his shoulder while three men are running full speed directly at him. If you think this sounds easy, I challenge you to “make the call” yourself in real time. Here’s a clip of that play.  It may take you a few times to come to a conclusion – and you’re not even doing it in front of millions of people who are watching during the biggest televised sporting event in the year. For the record, the official made the correct call on the field of a completed catch.

A third transferable skill is confidence. An attorney must be confident in his or her representation of a client in court, just like an official must have the confidence to make the tough calls that need to be made on the field. An official who does not instantly loses credibility with the coaches, players and fans. Likewise, an attorney who does not have confidence in his courtroom performance will also suffer from lack of respect and credibility from the judge, jury and opposing counsel, not to mention the risk of an adverse outcome for his or her client.

My avocation might be unusual but I am not alone. Two years ago the Daily Record wrote an article about several lawyers (and a retired judge) who also officiate high school football. I know these men well and officiate with them often. In addition, a few of the most well-known NFL officials are lawyers. Two-time Super Bowl referee Ed Hochuli is a named partner in a law firm in Arizona and last year’s Super Bowl alternate referee, Clete Blakeman is a partner is an Omaha firm. Maybe it is not so surprising some of the best football officials are attorneys.

How do you take your lawyering skills and apply them outside your professional life?

One comment

  1. This column is another example of “Give a kid a hammer and he discovers everything in the world needs pounding.”

    And BTW – “fit” and “athletic” are not synonyms. Most officials have not had a genuine athletic moment in their lives (unless you count high school, and no real athlete does).

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