Frank Kimball

Reflections From A Headhunter and Hiring Partner: Why You Must Know a Little About Football

Editor's Note: As part of Ms. JD's 5th Birthday celebration, we'll be looking back at our favorite posts over the years.

One of the best sessions at the Ms JD Third Annual Conference on Women in the Law last November was “Bring on the Rain,” moderated by Deborah Knupp, the inspiring and managing partner of Akina. Other panelists included the remarkable Kelly Hoey, the President of 85 Broads (if you’re not a member, you should be). A law student asked “Why do women lawyers have to learn about football?” She described meeting senior male lawyers and how the conversation inevitably turned toward the gridiron. A panelist asked for my views as the only male of the species in the audience. Consider the following my extended remarks.

The answer is a qualified yes. Not because football defines America. Not because it’s emblematic about what’s right with the world. Far from it. It is one of many things you need to know a bit about in order to be fluent in the language of business. Many of your clients, potential clients, and members of your actual and aspirational network will be sports fans. Some will know more about a sport than anything else in life. Most will be more casual - keeping up with the Bears or the Patriots is just a part of their day to day life. Cultivating, expanding, and creating relationships is about finding common ground. But it’s also more about reaching out to find out what is of interest to the other person in the conversation. That demonstrates respect, interest, and the desire to know more about them.

As a young lawyer building her network you’ll need to learn and understand a lot more. You’ll have to speak the language of business (even if you don’t have an MBA) - and be able to do a discounted cash flow analysis and understand a client’s business from their point of view. You will talk to clients about their children even where there are none in your household. You will learn about their industry - so you can talk to them about their work. You will learn about their city - because most people are endlessly proud about where they live.

Being a bit more worldly can also make you more interesting. Whether it’s learning about trekking the Himalayas, micro brews in Vancouver (I’ve found three this week that I’ll classify as memorable), selecting shade tolerant shrubs for a north-south garden in Zone 5, or the common moral threads in Clint Eastwood’s recent films - Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, Gran Torino and The Changeling - it’s all part of the continuing conversation among business professionals. The worst thing a young lawyer can do is to refuse to participate in a conversation because you don’t find it interesting - playing into non-lawyers’ views of us as narrow, uninteresting, arrogant unpleasant, and argumentative (my Tennessee-raised mother preferred the term “disputatious”).

Let’s start with the basics. Football’s not that complicated - if it were, would guys spend so much time obsessing about it? Football is a part of America’s culture and the language of business. It is something that men and women in law firms and business speak about every day - not only to discuss what happened to the Bears last night but to use countless analogies to the Hail Mary Pass, drop back and punt, the blitz, end around, fumbling, throwing the “bomb,” and “sudden death”.

How to match wits with the champions? Watch a few games this season. Spend 10-15 minutes reading the Sunday or Monday sports pages. Once a week suffer through an hour of Sports Center on ESPN. Spend some time with a friend who loves the game and let them lead the way. Repeat until comfortable. Is it as much of a grabber as a Bobby Flay Thrown Down or Clinton and Stacy waltzing through another episode of What Not to Wear? Works for me. I watch all of them.

You don’t need to know why Brett Favre throws across the field, into the wind, against a cover two defense when the off side DE releases into the flat and the MLB blitzes. But you might want to know the names of five players on the pro and college teams most popular in your city and how they’re doing this season. You don’t have to master subtle complexities of the game. You just have to be able to have a three minute conversation with someone you don’t know - who may be a superior, a client, a potential client, or a new networking target. You’re sending a signal of respect for what they enjoy. That’s all. You’re not taking a fundamental stand on an issue of social significance.

Other areas of social, cocktail party banter among lawyers are fairly predictable - At 57 I’ve been to my fair share and I still remember the awkwardness walking into a party where I knew only a few people - the sea of older, wiser faces who were, I was certain, going to ask me questions about polo, the ballet, the opera, the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, or particle physics. It never happened. The conversations were about current events, kids, sports, families, schools, kids, where to go on vacation, that great bistro that just opened on West 14th Street, whether a light Pinot noir could possibly complement a piece of rare halibut (answer: yes) and predictable intra-firm gossip. And, for what it’s worth, older lawyers walking into a room filled with a sea of younger professionals, often worry about what they’ll have to say, what they have in common. It’s the human condition.

To be sure the conversation is not and should not be about the miscreants - Pac Man Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Lewis and others whose names fill the on and off season police blotters and whose conduct toward women has ranged from offensive to criminal to worse. They too are part of the story and their conduct is found offensive by a vast majority of men who enjoy the game. There are hooligans and criminals among the famous in all walks of life - we could walk through the history of the Vatican, the White House, the halls of academia, Hollywood, law firms, right wing or left wing broadcast media, or corporate board rooms and find similar misconduct. By understanding it perhaps your generation (and your children) can continue the multi-decade journey toward equality of treatment and opportunity.

I played football (high school –with no distinction), coached 12 years of youth sports, and remain, in the words of our daughter Shannon, “obsessed” with Michigan football. But the best part of life’s journey is learning about new subjects, endeavors, and experiences and learning from the experiences of others. It makes life more interesting and rewarding. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with more than 11,000 students and lawyers to discuss their career objectives. I hope to convey some value in the advice I provide. But I know that I learn far more every day from lawyers and students about their views, experiences, ambitions, and concerns — all of which help me understand this rapidly-evolving profession. One of the many things I admire about Ms. JD is that pushes the edge of the envelope encouraging its members to learn, to connect, to speak, to help, and to test themselves.

When someone says “I don’t have a television,” “I can’t stand Fox News (though I’ve never actually watched 30 consecutive minutes),” or “I’m not going to waste my time watching sports,” - I wonder about their motivation. Does it make them feel superior? Do they know the message they are transmitting? To me they sound as rigid and uninteresting as their older counterpart who refuses to learn how to use E-mail or the Internet, labels all politicians they don’t like as extremists or worse, and spews about the terrible music and clothes of America’s youth. They’re on a one way journey of intolerance whose final scene is yelling at kids to “Get off my lawn!” The lawyers and clients (and potential clients) you meet can find many people to work with. They prefer people who are interesting. If that means a little knowledge about football - it can’t possibly be harder than the first few times I made a commendable risotto.

So yes, you should learn a bit about football— and many more things. And when the person you’re chatting with responds with sincere questions about things of interest to you - view that as an accomplishment and as a sign of mutual respect. Lawyers live in what can become an increasingly narrow world where the pressure to specialize can make you feel as if you are learning more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing. Your clients and those in your network have a broader range of interests - from football to finance to fauna. The more you know about their world, the more successful you will become.

Last year was the first time in 35 years that I hadn’t attended or watched the Michigan-Ohio State football game. Instead, I attended Ms. JD's Third Annual Conference and it opened a fascinating door for me to this organization, its objectives, members, and supporters. That afternoon Michigan fell to the Buckeyes 20-7 — but I don’t think it was because I was not in the Big House or planted in front of the HDTV. I’ve watched the replay half a dozen times and the score hasn’t changed.

Predictions for 2010? The Bears will be an 11-5 wild card, advance to the NFC Conference Championships and lose a close one to the dreaded Packers. My battered Wolverines? I’ll go out on a limb and say 9-4 with a victory in a non BCS Bowl game. You’d rather discuss politics, the Gulf oil disaster, new restaurants in Los Angeles, how home made ancho chili powder can change your life forever, Supreme Court nominees, whether golden retrievers are smarter than German Shepherds (they are) or trends in the housing market? Call 773 528 7548 or e-mail me.  Always glad to chat - I’m booked for three hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the Fall. By the way - the last time Favre tried that pass - it was intercepted (his last pass as a Packer in the 2008 NFC finals). And why his name is pronounced Far-ve, you’ll have to explain to me. I’d ask a Packers or Vikings fan, but they are so edgy this time of the year.

4 Comments

Peg

Frank, Thanks for writing this terrific article.  You obviously have a lot of experience with this and I think this is one of most useful and practical things I have ever read on Ms. JD.
 

jessie

So earlier this week I posted a review of Judith Richards Hopes’ memoir Pinstripes and Pearls.  Well my autographed copy was a gift from none other than Mr. Frank Kimball.  It’s particularly fitting then that the best example I know of to confirm Frank’s advice comes from that same volume.
We’ve all heard the stories of the pioneering women who went out to look for work in the big city firms in the ‘50s and ‘60s only to be offered secretarial posts or told the firm couldn’t hire women. Of course the most famous examples are those of our first two female SCOTUS Justices.
Hope relates many similar tales from  members of her Harvard Law School Class of ‘64. Her own: with zero prospects and no money she flies to D.C. determined to convince Mr. Williams (of present day Williams & Connolly) to hire her. She argues her way into a conversation and clinches the job when she proves her knowledge and passion for Ohio football.
This story confirms Frank’s basic point - it’s worth knowing something about football just like anything else that clients and employers care about.  It also illustrates a second point: don’t pretend to know more than you do.

Amelia B.

Frank, I also have experience that anecdotally verifies what you’ve said.  It might be that I went to a football school for law school (go blue!), but watching one season of games (not following all that closely, but knowing generally what was happening) and spending 30 minutes learning more about football before my interviews definitely gave me an in - both during OCI and at callbacks, cocktail parties, summer events, etc. I’ve found that people often want to discuss football way more than they want to discuss law.
Jessie is right, though, you should never claim to know more than you do, but even as a conversation starter, having a little bit of knowledge can really help begin a memorable conversation.  And, if you’re anything like me, that little bit of knowledge and a few interesting conversations may propel you into learning more about a subject you never thought you’d be interested in!
The more you open yourself up to different topics, the more interesting your conversations can become too!  The only thing I would add is to keep some tid-bits of your own handy as well.  Sometimes an innocuous bit of information is all you need to strike up a conversation and from there a relationship or connection!  When you say something that someone has never heard, you won’t believe the type of things they will share with you! It’s a great way to learn more about people and create a conversation that neither of you will forget.
Thanks, Frank!

Manamana

I also agree this is great advice.  My own anecdote:  I actually became a football fan before law school (and not because of my alma mater, but my boyfriend).  When I was going through OCI, I decided that the whole process was quite similar to the NFL draft.  Think about it—you are being evaluated on your past performance (in college, in other jobs), some combine stats (your grades, class rank, law school status), and other somewhat hard-to-pin-down qualities (the buzz about you, what kind of personality you bring to the table, who your backers are).
I was so taken with this analogy that in one of my early OCI interviews I responded to a question from the (male) interviewer about how OCI was going by busting out with my NFL draft comparison.  It was immediately clear that what I thought was a softball response to a softball question had totally flummoxed him, and there was no way we were going to (as I hoped) spend five minutes chatting about general football things.  In the end, the interview went over well, but I’m still tickled to this day by the fact that when I tried to go football, I did it with apparently the one guy who wasn’t able to pick up his end of the conversation.
That being said, I’ve been grateful for my (genuine) football interest, and its ability to provide endless small talk, during and after law school.  For you novices out there:  just check out SportsCenter periodically, and make sure to know your local team’s (or your hometown team’s) m.o.

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