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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

What a Football Coach Can Teach a Law Firm Leader

Linda A Klein and John Hinton IV


  • Although not all the characteristics that make one a great coach transfer to the practice of law, several of Saban’s characteristics are worth our consideration.
  • Leaders need to adapt to changing circumstances, lead through failures and know when to pass the torch.
What a Football Coach Can Teach a Law Firm Leader

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Summer is here, but fall will arrive soon and with it the return of college football. However, one person who won't return to the sidelines this year is Nick Saban. During his time as head coach for Alabama he won six national championships (not including a seventh that he won at Louisiana State University), nine Southeastern Conference championships and he had multiple national championship runner-up teams. His teams finished within the top 10 for 16 straight seasons. Whether you love him, hate him or are indifferent to football, there's no question that he was a tremendous success as a leader. Although not all the characteristics that make one a great coach transfer to the practice of law, here are three that are worth considering.

Adapting to Changed Circumstances

Part of what enabled Saban to sustain an elite level of success over an extended period was his ability to see the need to adapt to changes in the way that college football was played and his willingness to do so, even at the cost of deviating from core philosophies that had made him successful. Early in his tenure at Alabama, his teams were known for relying on stifling defenses and offenses that focused on running the ball and controlling the clock, which was consistent with him being a defensive- minded coach. However, several rule changes midway through his tenure made it difficult for teams to win games with their defense alone. At first, Saban advocated for rolling back the rule changes. However, upon realizing that wasn’t going to occur, he accepted that his preferred style of football would not lead to continued success on the field, and he actively pursued modernizing his offense to take advantage of the rule changes. Deviating from what had worked for so many years required courage, humility and risk taking, because there was no guarantee that the changes would lead to continued success. Saban refused to be tied to what worked in the past. His modernization of his offense paid off with another three national championships.

We all tend to stick with plans and philosophies that are familiar to us, particularly when they have led to success. However, sustained success often requires leaders to adapt to systemic changes and new challenges that cannot be overcome by a business-as-usual approach. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” is a valuable maxim. At the same, we have experienced significant changes in the legal landscape over the last two decades, and the pace of change continues to accelerate. For example, the ways in which young lawyers respond to coaching, correction and attempts to motivate certain behaviors differs from older generations. Firm leaders must be willing to adapt to new conditions to maintain success. 

Leading Through Failures

Saban didn’t lose many games at Alabama, but in his press conferences after those losses you would hear a consistent message among his statements, which was his personal disappointment in not doing what he needed to do to position his players to be successful on the field. While holding his team to high standards, he held himself to high standards, shouldered his own part of the blame for each loss and expressed a commitment to improve himself. They won as a team and lost as a team.

It is often said that success has a thousand authors, but defeat is an orphan. Saban rejected that philosophy and insisted that everyone, himself included, share in blame for setbacks. Such a philosophy requires its own set of courage and risk taking. By owning his part of each loss, he was setting an example to his entire team to own their part. His teams rarely lost consecutive games, and his leadership when failures occurred played a large part in their ability to bounce back. Our culture of the legal profession often encourages lawyers never to own fault in a matter. However, setbacks are bound to occur, and when a leader owns her part of the setback it motivates others to do the same.

Knowing When to Pass the Torch

Saban retired after another successful season, losing in overtime of the semifinal playoffs to the eventual national champion. In statements about his retirement decision, he expressed a strong belief that Alabama was poised for a great 2024, but he also saw signs that it was time to step aside. Leaders often overstay their time in a position, stepping down only when their organization is headed in the wrong direction. Saban refused to follow that path. By not waiting too long to step aside, he enabled his successor to start with a firm foundation rather than having to rebuild a program in decline.

We hope these thoughts are as helpful to you as they are to us.