Update: A correction was made to clarify the phrasing of the previous law firm Chapman worked for in the 10th paragraph.
It takes about 10 minutes for Robert A. Chapman to get from his 38th floor office in the Loop to the court.
Not the courtroom — the court.
Chapman, a partner at Chapman, Spingola LLP, coaches seventh- and eighth-grade boys basketball at Frances Xavier Warde School, a Catholic elementary school in the West Loop. This upcoming season will be his 10th year as a volunteer coach.
From November to March, Chapman comes into the office a little early so he can leave on time for practice. If needed, he will finish the day’s remaining work after running drills and herding 13- and 14-year-olds on the finer points of the game.
Chapman said coaching and his law practice are more similar than one might think. Both as a basketball coach of teenage boys and as a leader of a 15-person law firm, Chapman has to inspire people to work hard.
“In whatever you’re doing, you always have to get people to buy into you,” Chapman said. “That’s part of coaching. It’s the same in dealing with clients or if you’re on trial and dealing with a jury or a judge or an arbitrator.”
Chapman has been passionate about basketball since playing on the varsity team at the Latin School of Chicago. He was a manager of the basketball team as a college freshman at Duke University. He played on a club team after he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, his junior year and coached another club team senior year.
He said his skill level at Berkeley made him “probably the 15th man on a 15-person team, but it was a lot of fun.”
After graduating from the Berkeley School of Law in 1985, Chapman returned to Chicago and volunteered as an assistant coach under his old high school varsity coach at Francis W. Parker School.
He served as an assistant for his first four years of practicing law, until he got involved in a long arbitration where hearings were scheduled during practices and game times. He took a 17-year coaching hiatus, during which he helped raise his own kids and left a firm that is now part of Nixon, Peabody LLP to practice solo for 12 years.
In 2004, he co-founded Chapman, Spingola, which covers business litigation and intellectual property transactions and litigation, with Peter M. Spingola, who Chapman said clerked for him as a law student.
In 2006, Chapman fell back into coaching basketball. Chapman and his friend who had a seventh-grade son at Frances Xavier Warde School co-coached. Chapman has been volunteering as the head coach there ever since, following each seventh-grade team into eighth grade then starting over with a new team of seventh-graders the next year.
In the off-season this summer, he also coached 15-year-old girls in a Flow Basketball Academy team.
He said he enjoys helping the team learn to work together and set goals. Chapman also likes that Warde is a racially and economically diverse school.
“I like the challenge of bringing kids from different backgrounds together with a common goal,” he said.
Chapman’s teams do well in competition, too. Teams have won championships for the past three years and have played in championships for the past seven years. This upcoming season, a student Chapman coached will play college basketball at an NCAA Division I school.
Warde's athletic director, Joe Carlini, said Chapman was “the real deal.” Chapman has someone film each of his players’ games, sets up a library of the videos and buys the team dinner for video-review sessions he hosts.
Carlini also said Chapman “just gets it.” He asks for his players’ feedback and lets the team make strategy decisions together.
“He’s so genuine in it that the players buy into what he’s saying and it translates to better relationships on the court,” Carlini said.
Twice each year, including over Christmas break, former players meet up again to scrimmage and lend a hand where they can.
One of Chapman’s assistant coaches, Cameron Ballard, said Chapman makes the team a fun experience.
Plus, working with 13- and 14-year-old boys means the coaches really see their impact. Boys come back “as little men in eighth grade,” Ballard said. They’re as many as four inches taller, bigger with a little facial hair and ready to start applying all the leadership tips they have been taught.
“They’re literally maturing in front of you,” Chapman said.
Ballard, who graduated from The John Marshall Law School this year and plans to go into sports law, has been an assistant coach under Chapman for four years.
He played point guard on the FXW basketball team himself when he was a student there from 2001 to 2004. He taught basketball camps in the summers over the years, so he knew a few of the boys who were going to play on the first team he coached there, including his godparents’ son who he said was like a little brother to him.
The teenage boys’ winning streaks aren’t the only ones benefiting from Chapman’s leadership. Ballard told Chapman that he had been thinking about applying to law schools, and Chapman offered Ballard a position as a law clerk at Chapman, Spingola.
“He’s been more than a blessing in my life,” Ballard said.
When he was clerking for Chapman, they would work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then, Ballard said, “When it was time to put the paper down, we’d put the whistles on.”
Carlini said he was shocked that an established attorney was coaching middle school basketball.
“You don’t see guys of his status actually go back and do what they like or what they want to,” Carlini said. “It’s very commendable.”