Though I’ve never been much of a sports fan, football least of all, I feel compelled to turn on the Superbowl (if not watch it) just so that I can participate in Monday morning conversations. For that reason, I am probably the last person on earth to have learned about Katie Sowers, an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49’rs who made history as the first woman to coach an NFL team in the Superbowl.
Now, again – as a non-football fan, what Sowers actually does as a coach on a day to day basis doesn’t hold much interest for me. But I was captivated by the story of how Sowers as a woman ascended to the top of the game in football – and it’s a story that holds valuable lessons for any struggling solo or small firm lawyer — male or female — stumbling along the Sisyphysian path to greatness.
According to this New York Times profile, Sower found her path to the NFL in the most unlikely of places: as a coach for a fifth-grade basketball team in Kansas City, Missouri. But Sower took her role seriously and soon caught the eye of Scott Pioli who had been General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs and whose daughter played on Sower’s team. Pioli saw that Sower took coaching seriously and as the two became friendly, Pioli also learned of Sowers’ interest in coaching football. She just needed an opportunity which came in the form of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching fellowship program for which Pioli recommended Sowers. After the fellowship, Sowers was offered a 10-month NFL internship that paid $10 an hour. So Pioli stepped in to pay Sowers’ rent so she could take the position and afford the mortgage. Once Sowers secured those opportunities, she worked to prove herself, eventually catching the eye of 49’rs coach Kyle Shanahan who hired her.
So what does all of this have to do with running a solo or small practice? First, you never know where you may find an opportunity that will catapult you forward in your career – so it’s important to always be on. For example, if you agree to give a CLE presentation or speak at a bar association, don’t just roll in the day of with a canned powerpoint. Instead, if you’re going to do it, do it right: practice your presentation and supplement it with case law summaries and other useful materials so that a participant has an opportunity to experience the quality of your work. When you show up for even a routine court hearing, be prepared and present yourself so that everyone in the courtroom takes notice and you come to mind for a future case.
Second, like Sowers, recognize that the path to opportunity isn’t always obvious or a direct line. When I started my career, I threw my heart into pro bono work for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, eventually winning a service award. Turned out that a partner at a prominent energy law firm served on the Board and the awards event gave me an opportunity to introduce myself which resulted in an of counsel position. Likewise, if you serve on a PTA committee or coach a sports team, you could wind up impressing a corporate CEO or a small business client or a dad who needs a family law attorney with your organizational or marketing or leadership skills just by doing a kickass job of running an email list or persuading local vendors to sponsor events.
Of course, serendipity can find you even outside of an organized event, when you’re simply out in the world. A decade ago, I shared this great story of how a chatty lawyer who walked into Staples to buy a fax machine struck up a conversation with a clerk and wound up helping him reconnect with his energy-tycoon father and secure his rights to the Duke Trust.
Whether online or offline, connection is powerful and can transform every day into an opportunity. But to use a sports analogy, opportunities arise only when you treat every day like game day, rather than a time out on the sidelines. What will you do to bring your best game today?