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)





Do you want to win?

4 10 2010

Last week I started reading what is probably the second most famous text on military strategy (after Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War“); Carl von ClausewitzOn War“. I’ll be honest – it’s not an easy read.

Thawson & Partner's new aggressive strategy made quite a splash in the legal press

My reason for reading was not that I was plotting any sort of immediate show of armed force (although if I was, I promise you’ll read about it here first!), but to look for lessons that could easily be applied to strategy in the law firm arena. While it was a fascinating read, I struggled to apply many of the concepts, and turned instead to Robert Greene‘s “The 33 Strategies Of War“.

Much easier.

In fact the first chapter immediately grabbed my interest, it was titled “declare war on your enemies: the polarity strategy”. There’s quite a lot of depth to the chapter, but one of the key messages is to know your enemy.

Sounds simple?

I’m not so sure. Although the market is ultra-competitive, many firms struggle to know who their competitors really are. When I was undertaking my primary research for my MBA thesis on law firm strategy, one of the questions I asked the CEOs and managing partners was “who are your competitors?”. Answering was much more difficult than I anticipated. A huge number of variables came up: what geography was I talking about? which practice area? in which industry did I mean?

These  are undoubtedly good questions and show a good understanding of the need to segment markets, but it does make me think about the benefits of good, old-fashioned, competitive spirit. It might be that you can find “enemies” that compete in 80% of the firm’s markets, or it might be key teams have their own “public enemy number one”, but I do believe finding a key competitor to focus upon can bring real benefits.

I remember when I was in private practice, there was one firm I absolutely wanted to beat. In the area of law I practised they were generally ranked slightly higher than my firm, they had a slick brand, nicer offices, were reportedly more profitable and they paid better. I had a huge amount of respect for the firm, and on a human level, liked a great many of their lawyers. But boy, did I want to beat them! If we were ever responding to the same request for proposal, I would want to go the extra mile to make sure we were at the top of our game.

Now this response might be unique to me, but I suspect  having a handful, of clearly identified competitors could help galvanise a firm (or team) and focus it on winning? Could a common firm-wide “enemy” help break down silos within the firm?

Could having a clear idea of an “enemy” help the law firm define itself? If you know what you don’t want to be, might that help you identify differences? It might be that this polarisation helps clients identify more clearly what they are looking for in advisors.

As Greene says “see yourself as a fighter, an outsider surrounded by enemies. Constant battle will keep you strong and alert”.

Another benefit to focussing on competitors, which I discovered  in corporate life, was that commercial and sales people can then  think more broadly about the impact of their actions on the market place. For example, “if we hire Mr X, will it hurt company Y?”, “If we launch this new product at a price that undercuts Z co, what will it do to their margins?”. Without a clear idea of competition, it is hard to benefit from this type of thinking.

To me, competition is a key part of strategy. It should be about winning in a market place. A clear view of who your competitors are must help this process. It’s not always easy (I’ve written before about the benefits of collaboration among law firms, so there are undoubtedly multiple perspectives to think about here), but I do believe it’s worth thinking about. The one cautionary note is that it shouldn’t be done at the expense of losing focus on the client.

So, this week’s message? Find an enemy, have a fight. You might feel better for it….