What lawyers can learn from the U.S. Navy SEALs

9 05 2011

The politics, morality and socio-economic consequences of Osama Bin Laden’s death will undoubtedly be discussed for years to come, and this blog is certainly not the place for that debate. I would however like to stake my claim to being the first commentator to raise the issue of what lawyers can learn from the incident, and in all seriousness, there are some great lessons in there.

The senior partner wasn't really convinced that the seal was up to the job of providing security for the new Docklands office

As regular readers of this blog will have spotted from various book references I’ve made before (“On War”, “The 33 Strategies of War” and of course, the management consultant’s favourite “The Art of War”, I’m a bit of a fan of military history, and I have certainly read my share of special forces memoirs. I’m constantly impressed by the ability of elite forces to defy the odds and accomplish mission objectives which often seem impossible if not downright suicidal.

Now, admittedly comparing the theatre of war to the legal market place may be a stretch, but I do think that there are strategies and tactics that lawyers and law firms can learn that can help them compete and win in what is an increasingly unforgiving environment.

In particular special operations success can often be defined in terms of “relative superiority” – that is the ability of a smaller attacking force to gain a decisive advantage over a larger or well defended enemy. Let’s be honest – not all law firms have the resources (financial or otherwise) of the Magic Circle or Wall Street behemoths, so perhaps there are lessons that smaller firms or teams can use to win in their own markets.

To analyse the mission, I went to a book which is significantly less popular than those I listed above, but is likely to become more so since recent events – “Spec Ops; Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice”, written by William H McRaven, the architect of SEAL team six‘s mission in Abottabad.

The basic framework he uses to analyse the case studies has three basic elements: planning, preparation and execution. To cover all three here would take way too long, so let’s take a look at planning to see how a law firm might measure up to the special forces.

Arguably, this phase of the Bin Laden mission had been underway since 2001 (when in December he escaped from the caves of Tora Bora), but for the purposes of this post we’ll assume planning started in August last year when the compound he was found in was put under 24/7 surveillance. The intelligence gathering was both comprehensive and intensive, which are words which are often not front of mind when it comes to law firm planning.

Too often in my experience, strategic and tactical initiatives are based on the lawyer’s existing perception of a situation, be that a general awareness of what’s going on in a particular market, some second or third-hand insight into what a competitor is doing, or perhaps an interpretation of client needs without any real probing or testing. Hard facts and recent data is often in short supply.

If I contrast that with my experiences in the corporate world, where competitive intelligence is harvested from multiple sources, consolidated and analysed. Client insight is a specialist function, often carried out by a “voice of the customer” type function, whose job it is to really get underneath the skin of clients and prospects and understand their needs.

Now of course, particularly for smaller firms and teams, it might not be realistic to expect to call on these resource, but it is feasible to replicate their functions. There is a huge amount of insight available out there, both qualitative and quantitive, which is accessible and free. Client surveys (perhaps part of a key client quarterly review programme), market surveys (perhaps using a tool like survey monkey), reading the annual reports of clients, setting Google alerts for the names of your competitors and targets. Pulling together hard, factual information, synthesising and analysing it, can make a tremendous difference in the robustness of your plans.

Another thing that the special operations community do well at the planning stage is building in some independent challenge. In his book The Operators, Mike Ryan explains how the first stage of planning is typically for an IAP (Immediate Action Plan) to be drawn up – this is a basic outline that can be executed quickly if the need arises. It also then forms the basis of the more detailed OPLAN (Operational Plan), where the team assess multiple options before narrowing down and then ultimately deciding on the way forward. At this stage the plan is then passed to  an independent board for review – the reviewers will be people from a similar backgound to the planners, but removed from the mission itself so they can give a sensible, but independent critique.

This seems to me to be a very sensible sanity check, but again how few firms and teams reach out to others elsewhere in the firm for an independent review? In all fairness, I suspect that one of the very pragmatic restrictions on law firm’s ability to plan effectively is the fact that planning itself is not a chargeable activity, and thus gets pushed down the list of priorities. If planning itself is not given much weight, it’s easy to imagine that critiquing another team’s plan isn’t going to get much head space.

In weighing up the potential effectiveness of plans, Mcraven highlights two factors that I think are worth pulling out here. Firstly, simplicity of objectives. While the Bin Laden mission was far from simple, its primary objective was very clear. The operatives were not having to take decisions in the heat of combat to prioritise objectives or work out what was required for the mission to be a success. Contrast that with some law firm strategic or marketing plans that talk obliquely about their aims and goals, but lack the clarity for the lawyers and support staff tasked with executing them to be absolutely clear about what is required.

Secondly, Mcraven talks about the need for surprise and in particular the role of creativity in planning missions to generate this. I’ve written before about the need for creativity in law firms, but I think it’s instructive that even in such a rigid and formal planning environment as military special operations, the critical role of creativity is acknowledged. For those lawyers who believe that creativity has no place in the cold, hard world of legal practice, my suggestion would be to think again about this assumption.

There are of course a host of other reasons why special forces soldiers can achieve what they do – aside from the preparation and execution phases of the missions that I mentioned earlier, there’s no doubt that selection and training play a massive part in their success. Those are topics for another day, but if you implement some of the special forces discipline in your planning, I have no doubt that relative superiority in your market place can be achieved.

Now lock and load. (sorry, couldn’t resist that)

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3 responses

9 05 2011
scott

If professional services adopted the ’0 defect’ planning model of the armed forces imagine how much bigger their companies would be? If a firm never lost a client, how big would they be? When you get your strategic planning wrong in special ops people die, which focuses the mind; they built an exactly replica of the compound in N.Carolina and practiced for months. Imagine a law firm adopted the same mentailty and aimed to never lose a client, to leave clients thinking they would have to be stupid to go anywhere else. Probably not in our lifetime….

9 05 2011
Saqib Awan

As lawyers we should be discussing the extra-judicial killings carried out by US forces and its implications on international laws, sovereignty and international relations. I’m amazed how far fetched is the idea of this article!

9 05 2011
Intelligent Challenge

Thanks Scott – The idea of applying the planning lessons to retention of existing clients is a great one. Growing existing accounts is a great place to think about business development.

Saqib – thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree that the incident requires debate, but I steer clear of discussions of the law itself on my blog, which focusses on the business of legal practice rather than the content.

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