Best Practices: What Law Schools Might Learn from one of Basketball’s Greatest Coaches, John Wooden

By: Sara Berman

Law schools are responsible for educating today’s lawyers and for reimagining themselves to also best prepare tomorrow’s lawyers—not an easy task, by any stretch. But there are lessons we may be able to learn from a perhaps unlikely comparison. In this post, we look at the law school as a “team” and ask how some of the best leadership and management advice from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden might help improve outcomes.

John Wooden and Steve Jamison’s Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence, (McGraw-Hill Education, 2009; hereinafter Wooden’s Leadership) is an easy winter break read and/or it may perhaps be reading suitable for a faculty retreat; the book’s lessons might well help law schools achieve their potential and realize far greater returns on their investments in student success. Wooden adopted many success principles; this post considers three suggestions from Wooden’s lessons, adapted to the law school context:

1.) Encourage every stakeholder in the law school “village” to view him or herself as a team member;

2.) Replace the current externally competitive model with internally driven success measures;

3.) Stress, teach, and role model characteristics such as “listening attentively” and “arriving on time”—qualities that law firms seek in new lawyers (See IAALS, Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient, 2016; hereinafter Character Quotient Foundations) and character traits that, when effectively cultivated, may well help improve bar scores, employment, and the practice of law for our graduates.

I. Application of Three Basketball Success Principles to Law Schools

1. The Team

For all of us who have spent time in them, law schools feel a bit like countries: they have their own governance structure, history, cultures and customs, and even (in acronyms at least) their own language. Like many countries today, including our own, law schools are often sharply divided. Law school departments, including those that have symbiotic missions and would benefit from greater cohesion, are often siloed. An example of this is in one of my areas of expertise, bar preparation. The work of 1L doctrinal faculty and at least three departments, Student Affairs, Academic Support (ASP), and Legal Writing (LRW), are all closely aligned with student success, yet rarely do the individuals in these silos meet and plan together, or even think of themselves as members of the same “team.”

Law schools might well benefit from replacing the current siloed, “fiefdom” model with Wooden’s team-centered philosophy. Law student mastery of both doctrine and skills might improve, and bar passage rates might increase, if the stakeholders noted above (1L doctrinal faculty, Student Affairs, ASP, and LRW) joined with Career Development, students, and alumni to embrace the belief that “the star of the team is the whole team…As a coach, it was a fundamental principle of his philosophy. Even with superstars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton, the team was the star.” (Wooden’s Leadership at 12–13, emphasis in original).

It is well known in law schools that certain faculties have “stars.” Similarly, most everyone on campus will see students who make law review or are in the top ten percent of the class as “stars.” And the ability to become a “star” is often relatively “fixed.” Star professors are likely to have been star students at elite law schools. And even a student whose final GPA has dramatically increased from a low 1L GPA “starting level” to a much higher 3L GPA “end game score” may have a fairly low cumulative GPA.

While I am in no way suggesting that any one in any school, faculty or student, refrain from any personal ambition (quite the contrary), I am wondering what would happen if everyone in a law school believed the school itself were the primary and most important star. If every student who passed 1L year, no matter the GPA, believed he or she could pass the bar the first time, and, not only could do so but believed that there was a duty to the “team” to do everything in his or her power to do so to lift up the team, what effect might that have on bar passage?

It is clearly in every graduate’s personal interest to pass the bar the first time around, but do students and faculty realize, and do law schools enforce the message sufficiently, that the success of every individual enhances the prestige of the institution? If every student believed that the moment she or he passed the bar exam, the diploma of every alumnus of the law school became more valuable, what might that change? If every “rock star” faculty member believed that it was critical to mentor less experienced faculty so that the school as a whole shined as brightly as that one faculty member did, what effect might that have on the institution and on student success?

2. Internal Competition

A law school’s bar passage rate is a bit like a sports team’s score in the big game (national championship, Super Bowl, World Series, etc.) Class rankings, forced-curve grading systems, and selected GPA-dependent honors (including law review in many schools) and other law school traditions pit students against one another.

Some believe that form of win-lose competition, which mirrors litigation in some ways, is essential to improve bar pass rates. It seems worth at least a pilot study,

however, to determine whether adopting Wooden’s definition of internally driven success might improve test scores and morale in law school.

Law students currently experience anxiety, stress, and mental health challenges in geometrically greater numbers than the general population. (See Jerome M. Organ, David B. Jaffe, and Katherine M. Bender, Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns, 66 J. Legal Educ. 116, 2016). Would it make any difference if, “What mattered most was not how [they] fared in comparison to others, but how close [they] came to…ceaseless effort in bringing forth [their] own potential,” (Wooden’s Leadership at 8).

In basketball, a scored game, where the end result matters more than anything, Wooden achieved sustained success, for decades, by not allow[ing] the scoreboard to define success. Rather, his definition centered on this: “Strive to accomplish the very best that you are capable of. Nothing less than your best effort will suffice. You may fool others, but you can never fool yourself. Self-satisfaction will come from the knowledge that you left no stone unturned in an effort to accomplish everything possible under the circumstances.” Id. Imagine how bar results might change if this were the law school culture. Imagine the difference in outcomes if “joy” were “derived from the struggle itself—the journey—because only in that great effort of preparation and performance is their great opportunity to bring forth [their] best” (Wooden’s Leadership at 67).

3. Stress character traits

Law firms want law school graduates who listen well, show up on time, are courteous to and respectful of others, and who demonstrate commitment and a strong work ethic. According to the IAALS Character Quotient Foundations study, cited above, “The lawyers we surveyed –numbering more than 24,000—were clear that characteristics (such as integrity and trustworthiness, conscientiousness, and common sense), as well as professional competencies (such as listening attentively speaking and writing, and arriving on time), were far more important in brand new lawyers than legal skills (such as the use of dispute resolution techniques to prevent or handle conflicts, drafting policies, preparing a case for trial, and conducting and defending depositions).”

Wooden demanded just these sorts of characteristics and competencies of his players—even when they didn’t seem related to the “end game.” Wooden’s Leadership includes countless examples of teaching the most minute details, “… even showing players how to correctly put on socks and lace and tie shoelaces on sneakers to prevent blisters.” The comparison in law school might be teaching students to calendar appointments, to engage in effective active listening, and to read critically. And, lest anyone think these foundations are too minor to matter or that they are beneath graduate students, remember that Wooden’s team was

comprised of all players who had already proven themselves as star players in high school. I am sure it wasn’t any easier to tell them, “Now we are going to practice tying shoes” as it is to tell law students, “Now we are going to train our critical reading skills.” But it is equally if not more important to the success of the future of law schools to teach lessons that extend beyond doctrine and skills.

What Wooden realized in return was consistent positive results. One example in the book where Wooden left two “star players” behind for a big game because they did not show up on time for the bus. This reminded me of my own classes where when a student walked in late, I would often interrupt my lesson to point at the student and declare “If this were a courtroom, your being late might well have just lost your client her home or his child custody rights.” But many faculty members say nothing to students who wander in late or spend the majority of class surfing or shopping online. Some faculty are (justifiably) fearful of retaliation in student evaluations; others are simply weary of feeling as if they want the education for their students more than their students seem to want it themselves. Either way, in law schools we generally do not hold students accountable enough, nor do we demand that they learn and demonstrate many of the basic foundations, including arriving on time, yet, again, that is a competency that Character Quotient Foundations underscores is more valued by potential legal employers than most academic knowledge or skills.

Developing promptness in our students is low hanging fruit. So is teaching active listening. Imagine the virtuous cycle that might flow from an emphasis on developing listening skills starting in 1L! Not only would graduates be better prepared for and valued by their employers, but also they would likely listen and learn more effectively in class and later in bar review—especially if they were not also “multitasking” (and thus not paying full attention). Many professors are experimenting with and assessing the benefits of banning laptops. Why not pepper classes with listening skills training such as stopping frequently to summarize parts of lessons or speaking aloud (to one’s neighbor or to oneself in a voice recording) to assess what one understands after completing certain material? I recently had the pleasure of observing a class taught by Professor Steve Friedland of Elon University School of Law who regularly incorporates such active listening and comprehension exercises into his teaching with great success in student engagement and outcomes.

II. Steps for the Future

Below are a few suggestions law schools might implement –and then assess annually to determine whether the changes are having a positive effect.

* Read the Wooden’s Leadership as a law school team (administration, faculty, staff, and students), replacing basketball with law school analogies, and complete the fill-in-the blank exercises;

* Study the IAALS Character Quotient Foundations report;

* Hold discussion groups among and between stakeholders (team members) about these two resources, encouraging discussion among faculty, staff, and administration about how we as legal educators can both teach and role model many of the foundations our students will need to be effective professionals, and among students about how they can most effectively approach their learning to become the best they can be;

* Encourage all team members to prepare a list of three attitude changes and three assessable action items that they agree to try as part of their respective teaching, learning, and/or management responsibilities, for one year;

* Assess efficacy of such changes using focus groups, town halls, anonymous comment boxes, and other agreed upon measures; and

* Meet again to evaluate the efficacy of those changes and discuss new goals the next year.

Many law schools today are as driven by the need to improve bar passage as great sports coaches are by the pressure to win championships. And law school success more broadly includes not only effective teaching and learning, but also preparing students with the competencies most sought after by employers when they graduate. Why not learn from a master—or at least test the hypothesis to determine whether any of Wooden’s lessons from basketball success are transferable to law schools.

3 Responses

  1. Comment by: Benjamin V. Madison, III, JD (

    Sara Berman’s blog on how John Wooden’s approach could benefit law schools resonated with me. Long an admirer of Wooden, I found the points in the blog persuasive. First, law schools, professors, and administration ought to put the school’s success (bar passage) ahead of individual accomplishment. To say that there are too many egos, an objection I anticipate, isn’t an answer. Wooden’s teams had incredibly gifted athletes with egos. But they bought into his team-first approach because, deep down, they knew it was the right approach. It’s also the right approach for a law school to put the school first (first and foremost getting the students who have paid dearly to pass the bar exam). Second, the most troubling part of law school to me is to see students so focused on achieving external marks that they are at best, stressed, and at worst, depressed. I didn’t even realize I had been using Wooden’s approach in telling students “you are not your grades,” “measure your progress against yourself, not others,” and similar messaging. Third, spending as much time helping students develop character in the ways the blog suggests ought to be something we embrace. Every one of John Wooden’s players I’ve ever heard interviewed spoke of his emphasis on character and not statistics, etc. Ms. Berman’s example of simple ways we can cultivate character shows that. One of Wooden’s best quotes was “I’m glad I was a teacher.” Indeed, he was. And his lessons continue to inform us.

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