Lessons From the Court

Improving attorney performance in the profession.

By Chad Baruch

Attorney Performance

As the legal market grows ever more competitive, Texas law firms are looking for ways to improve their performance. I spent two decades as the head coach of high school and college basketball programs and, in my view, many of the principles we applied when building winning basketball teams can be useful to lawyers and law firms looking to become better and more competitive in the legal profession.

Throughout my career, I rejected the idea of having many detailed rules for our players and instead attempted to instill in them a small set of core values that they could apply to almost any situation. Over the years, these central principles have changed very little even as I served in private and public institutions.

Determination: Do you have the drive to improve? Are you willing to confront weaknesses to do it?

Resilience: Will you rebound from setbacks with renewed commitment?

Integrity: Are you unwilling to profit or win at the expense of honor?

Compassion: Are you committed to helping others?

Team First: Will team members sacrifice individual desires for the good of the team?

These core values translate well to business culture, including law firms. No person or firm can operate by these values and fail to improve. I offer this brief discussion of how these principles—which I have used not only in winning basketball games but also in helping develop character in young people—can help you improve your legal practice.


In law, as in basketball, hard work and a commitment to being the best almost always breed success. Why do people develop passion? Undeniably, some people simply have an inner drive to be the best at what they do. But often, the drive to succeed is instilled—or at least fostered—by team culture.

Where team leaders espouse (and, more critically, model) a commitment to excellence, new members will likely join in that commitment. No one wants to be the weak link on a strong team.

Of course, feedback from team leaders plays an important role in developing each member’s desire to improve. Good performance should be rewarded at least with compliments, often with recognition in front of the team, and sometimes—in the law firm context—with financial benefit. Likewise, mistakes must be recognized and corrected. And team members must know that subpar performance simply is unacceptable. This negative feedback, though, should be delivered professionally and respectfully, and always with the idea that team leaders want each member of the team to reach his or her full potential.

No matter how successful your firm may be, never think too highly of yourself. Mirroring the growing parity in NCAA basketball, today’s legal market is more competitive than ever. The best firms—like the best teams—engage in constant self-evaluation to improve themselves. Know what you do well—but also what you can do better. As Hall of Fame basketball coach Pat Summitt once said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts the most.”

In basketball, an important part of getting better is recognizing that improvement occurs both as a team and as an individual. Coaches have an expression: Teams improve during the season; players improve during the off-season. In the legal context, law firms must improve by helping their individual lawyers get better, enhancing the firm’s culture, and improving the way lawyers and staff members work together as a team. A law firm, like a basketball team, can reach its maximum potential when a team of great lawyers and support staff works in perfect harmony, taking advantage of each person’s unique strengths—becoming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

A great law firm, then, like a great basketball program does not just recruit talent—it develops talent. Choosing meaningful continuing legal education (directed toward each lawyer’s needs, not in a “one-size-fits-all” style) is an important part of this process. Know your people, know what they need, and figure out how to get it for them.


It is one of the most repeated maxims in sports: It’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get up. Championship caliber players and teams are not defeated by adversity—they learn from it. Indeed, the best coaches and players know that a painful loss can be more valuable than a win. If we pay close attention, we can learn a great deal from our losses. If you lose, keep your composure, dust yourself off, and move on.

One underappreciated aspect of resilience is team unity. Members of the best teams value and appreciate each other. This appreciation leads to a dynamic possessed by championship teams: the desire not to let your teammates down in any situation. Resilient teams usually are close-knit teams.


In any competitive endeavor, some people will use unethical methods to gain success. As a coaching staff, it is impossible to keep tabs on players every hour of the day. And it certainly is impossible to track all the people who come into contact with your players—and may attempt to lead them astray.

In each of the programs I have had the honor to lead, we attempted to make integrity a core value. This was a top-to-bottom commitment. Our players knew that the coaches followed rules like practice restrictions, academic eligibility, and recruiting strictures scrupulously. They knew we expected them to follow organizational and school rules. It was an important part—indeed, probably the most important—of our team culture. It became “our way” of doing things.

To be certain, we lost some good players because of this approach. And other coaches sometimes viewed us as self-righteous. But we thought these were small prices to pay for teaching our players the value of doing things the right way.

In the legal profession, we face continued issues with a lack of professionalism and declining public respect. Now more than ever, we must teach young lawyers the value of integrity and honor for the profession


Compassion is a critical component of success. We frequently reminded our players how lucky they were to be playing competitive basketball (some of them in exchange for a college education). This thankfulness reinforces appreciation for fellow team members and for the people who make success possible (in the case of most lawyers, the clients). That, in turn, pushes people to work even harder.

It also necessitates an element of service. In the legal profession, this can take many forms, including bar service and pro bono work. In my legal career, I have learned an enormous amount from working alongside great lawyers both in bar entities and on pro bono appeals. Involvement in professional organizations and activities can be an important part of developing legal talent.


Team First
A team working together in perfect harmony can overcome almost any obstacle—including superior talent and resources. One of the most overlooked aspects of developing unity is selecting personnel. My teams have been known, first and foremost, for playing stifling man-to-man defense. As a result, our staff wanted players willing to play defense. A gifted player unwilling to do so might have been a star elsewhere but was a poor fit for us. Select people who fit your firm’s practice, goals, and culture.

Once you have the right people on board, the critical step is giving each of them a sense of ownership in the firm’s work. In most firms, lawyers depend on associates or support staff. You will get the best performance from these people when they feel like an important and valued member of the team. When everyone feels they have a role to play—and that their role is an important one—the team gathers momentum. Never let your people feel like they are not valued, or that they are just replaceable cogs in a machine.

It is equally important, though, that everyone understands that not every team member can be the superstar. Some people necessarily may have more prominent roles than others. The team comes before any individual.


Adhering to these values—whether in building a championship caliber basketball program or an elite law firm—will improve performance. It also will help to ensure that success does not come at the cost of integrity. As a coach, I was as competitive as almost anyone I ever encountered. But I never wanted our team’s success to come at the expense of our integrity. Adhering to these values helped our teams be successful while maintaining our honor.TBJ


Chad Baruch CHAD BARUCH is an appellate attorney with Johnston Tobey Baruch and former chair of the Texas Bar College. He is certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Baruch is the men’s basketball coach at the Alcuin School in Dallas and formerly served as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Dallas, Paul Quinn College, and Yavneh Academy of Dallas.

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