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Lawyers on ice

Fall is here. There is a bit of a nip in the air in the morning. Some leaves have already started changing colors. My wife and I are planning to take the kids to pick out pumpkins.

But tonight, one of my most treasured fall events happens: the Washington Capitals will begin their hockey season.

I’ve been watching Caps hockey for so long that their broadcast crew seems like family to me. Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin and “Smokin'” Al Koken have been coming into my living room to describe the action for a good 20 years. I’ve shared a lot of great memories with them and, unfortunately, more than my share of heartbreak.

During most of my life the Caps have been a good-but-not-good-enough team. They’ve had long streaks of consecutive playoff appearances, usually coupled with first- or second-round eliminations. Some really good Caps teams have underperformed and others have overachieved. But regardless of how the team looks on opening day, I watch. You never know. This might finally be the year that an 82-game regular season followed by four rounds of best-of-seven-games hockey results in the Caps hoisting the Stanley Cup. It’s very hard to predict at the outset.

So it is with litigation. That case you thought might be great may turn out to have a lot of unforeseen problems down the road. Another case you thought might be a dog could turn into a strong one. You might be celebrating your coworkers’ great victory one day only to have the goal overturned on video replay later. The truth is that those of us with less experience can have a tougher time figuring out early on which cases will be winners and which won’t.

The only solution I’ve found is that we’ve got to work every case like it’s the most important case, just like hockey players have to play every game and work every shift as if it is the most important shift they will take. Because at that moment, it is the most important case.

Hockey is a game in which a vulcanized rubber puck is propelled at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour on ice surrounded by wooden boards and Plexiglass, with 12 large bodies flying around. Sometimes, games are won or lost because the puck just took a funny bounce and wound up in the net. All the players can control is their effort.

So, too, with practicing law. Not only can we not control the outcome, we can’t even control many of the variables that will produce it. But we can control our preparation and effort. We can do the little things right.

Dazzling moves and bone-rattling checks wind up on the hockey highlight reels but it is often the simple things done well that win games — or more accurately, the failure to do those things right can quickly lose a game. As less experienced lawyers, we’re usually not asked to deke two defensemen and beat the goalie glove-side high. We’re asked to do the simple things, the legal equivalent of a crisp pass right to a teammate’s stick or moving an opponent away from a loose puck. Learning and perfecting the very basic tasks of the practice may not earn glory or praise, but they’re the building blocks of success. And, if done poorly, they can kill a case. (No pressure.)

So if you’re flipping around TV tonight and happen upon a hockey game, stay with it for a few minutes. You might like it. And you might also notice that a lot of the best players are relatively young. Hockey is a sport in which talented, young players who work hard can make an immediate impact, more so than in any other North American sport. Take some inspiration from that.

Oh, and LET’S GO CAPS!