Sometimes when we look at someone for a position, we see our pre-conceived notions more clearly than a person’s potential. While there are probably examples of this in the legal space, there is a more vivid one, right now, drawn from the world of sports.
A strike-shortened NBA season has been brightened considerably by the unlikeliest of players: Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks. He had no scholarship offers out of high school, and was undrafted in the NBA after starring at that bastion of basketball, Harvard.
Mr. Lin knocked around with at least two other NBA franchises before landing with the Knicks this year. That team was actually close to cutting him from the squad earlier this month before injuries and other circumstances forced the hand of head coach Mike D’Antoni to play Mr. Lin.
And has he ever answered the call: in his first six games, Jeremy Lin set an NBA record for scoring in a player’s first six starts. The Knicks have only one loss since he has been the starting point guard. Pundits wonder whether Knicks team chemistry will still be intact when star Carmelo Anthony returns to the floor, perhaps tonight. Mr. Anthony may make more in one week than Mr. Lin makes in a year.
We have all had “can’t miss” hires miss, and “long-shot” people in new positions excel. I see three lessons for lawyers in the story of the amazing Mr. Lin, particularly for those with legal management responsibilities:
1. Don’t always go for the easy hire. The school that is the default #1 choice for many top tier law firms, Harvard, is apparently one of the last on the radar for the NBA. Only in pro basketball can going to Harvard seemingly be a mark against you. There are many great lawyers who didn’t attend top tier schools. It definitely takes a more inspired search and unusually engaged interviewing.
2. Look beneath the surface. It’s 2012 and you expect people to look beyond race, ethnicity or heritage these days. Some question whether that was the case with Mr. Lin. There have been precious few Asian-American NBA players, and his parents were not athletes as far as I can tell. They emigrated from Taiwan and appear to be all of five foot six. There may be valid explanations for why Mr. Lin didn’t catch on prior to now, but many teams are reflecting on how they missed Mr. Lin, particularly two teams (Golden State and Houston) who let him slip away.
3. Everyone has hidden talents. For whatever reason, Jeremy Lin’s success at Harvard was seen as not projecting well to the NBA. But at the high school and college levels, Mr. Lin showed leadership and clutch, almost intuitive game management. The sort of stuff that’s hard to teach. Have you ever run across a lawyer with an enviable pedigree but rather pedestrian skills to move beyond legal acumen to business results? Lawyers who can do that have a three point shot, when the game is on the line.
Unfortunately even a feel-good, underdog-triumphs-against-long-odds story gets complicated eventually. There was a hubbub this weekend regarding a phrase appearing on ESPN media outlets that was derogatory about Mr. Lin. When asked about this matter yesterday, Mr. Lin replied thusly:
â€œESPN has apologized,â€ he said. â€œI donâ€™t think it was on purpose or whatever. At the same time, theyâ€™ve apologized, and so from my end I donâ€™t care anymore. Have to learn to forgive. And I donâ€™t even think that was intentional, or hopefully not.â€
Grace as well as wisdom. Things that don’t show up in a transcript or LSAT scores.
Mr. Lin put this potentially distracting issue to rest after he scored 28 points and had 14 assists as the Knicks beat the defending champion Dallas Mavericks Saturday night. I would guess that the Knicks are glad they gave him a chance, even if they really stumbled into it.
When we are looking for the best lawyer for an opening, it helps to look beyond the standard “position requirements” and see whether you can find someone special where others aren’t looking.
There’s one last lesson from Jeremy Lin that is there for those on the other side of the recruitment or promotion table: if you are given “a shot,” really make the most of it. Part of Mr. Lin’s true talent seems to be in solid self-confidence, an ability to put errors behind him, and treat a new possession as a fresh start. But the secret sauce from where I sit is that Jeremy Lin makes those around him better.
And in the star-focused league that is the NBA, or the Am Law 200 for that matter, people who perform well and help others do the same are really rare indeed.