Proving grounds: Former minor league player finds niche in the legal field

Photo courtesy of Dawda Mann

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

The baseball frenzy of the 2016 season is long over, but for one lawyer the lessons he learned while playing several seasons of the professional sport have continued to serve him in the courtroom as well as they did on the field.

“In baseball, as in the legal game there are many, many factors that can help determine where your career goes,” said Earl Johnson, an attorney and former professional baseball player. “But even where factors dictate one thing, the player or lawyer is largely responsible for steering the ship.”

For 9 years, Johnson played centerfield in the Minor Leagues for the San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, and the Detroit Tigers.

Centerfield, Johnson said, is a position that demands patience, confidence and composure, not unlike the skills he uses as a commercial litigation attorney at Dawda Mann in Bloomfield Hills.

“There are a lot of things from baseball that translate to what I do today,” the Wayne State Law alum said, adding that while he might not completely agree with those who say baseball is parallel to life, there are valid comparisons between an education on the field and an education in the classroom.

“I don’t know if I would say that law is analogous to baseball.  But I do agree that there are similarities. In baseball, the minor leagues prepare you for big league life. They serve as proving grounds. There are several levels of minor league baseball; each requiring application of the fundamentals and abilities on a more consistent basis,” Johnson said.

“Similarly, undergraduate and legal education teach us the fundamentals.  Our early practice years serve as our proving grounds, where we prepare ourselves for the big stage. We hone our skills in the early years. As we practice, we become more consistent, make fewer mistakes and generally capitalize on our abilities, whether negotiating a merger or arguing a complex case on appeal. “

During his sports career, Johnson said he learned the “humility necessary to never get too high about anything – and to never get down too long about anything. There was always the next time.”

Said Johnson: “Even the best players in both professions experience setbacks, like going 0-4 and striking out with the winning run on base or walking out of a hearing with zero of the numerous things you were seeking, as well as great highs. In both professions, the best draw at least one positive from their setbacks, even if it’s only a lesson learned. They do not rest on their successes.”

For Johnson the key to success as a lawyer is preparation, an attribute he honed during the years he spent on the playing field.

“One of the things I learned from baseball is preparation. It is the most important thing in my legal practice, too,” Johnson said. “Whether you’re leaving the court or the field you need to know you did everything you could to prepare for that moment.”

The 45-year-old attorney’s professional path has been characterized by a willingness to veer in a different direction when necessary.

“I was a track guy but after high school I went with a friend to try out for a summer league but was told by the coach he didn’t need any players,” Johnson recalled. “So I tried out for another team. I learned to be ready for any possibility.”

While he was grappling with sport-related injuries, Johnson began to look at other professional options. The possibilities he found, spurred on by a promise to his mother to finish his education, led Johnson to Wayne State where he also earned his bachelor’s degree.
“My plan before I started law school was to join the FBI,” Johnson said. But like his initial foray into baseball, a friend’s suggestion triggered a change in Johnson’s plans. “He told me about a clerking job at a law firm. It was kind of like a baseball thing,” Johnson added.
At the law firm of Dawda Mann, Johnson said he has found a team approach that melds perfectly with the way he’s approaches life in and out of the office.

“The main thing is I mesh with the people here,” Johnson said. “I’ve been on some really good teams and Dawda Mann is one of them. The people here are a topflight group.”

The father of a 7-year-old daughter, Johnson said that his love for sports is secondary to the satisfaction he’s derived from parenting.

“I enjoy playing recreational sports when I can, including softball, racquetball and golf.  But those activities take a back seat to watching my daughter grow up and all the pleasures that entails,” Johnson said.

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