What can lawyers learn from military strategy?

Colonel Bob Stewart DSO was British Commander of UN forces in Bosnia. He arrived in the conflict armed with a typically resolute and decisive briefing from the Prime Minister, John Major: "Can you do the best job you can, Colonel Stewart?"

Stewart’s best was admirable – he had a clear sense of mission and an effective strategy for achieving it.

As soon as he landed, he asked himself three questions:

  • What needs to be achieved?
  • What tasks are crucial to that?
  • What resources/constraints apply?

He had the answers on paper (the first was, "to save lives") within four hours. It is interesting to contrast his speed of thought and action with the way many law firms approach these questions: forming committees, taking soundings, deliberating for months, before producing a paper the weight of a small hatchback, much of which is never referred to again. The road to professional hell is littered with discarded strategic plans.

The concept of business strategy derives from military strategy, and on this topic the leading US corporate consultant Roger L. Martin makes two insightful points:

  • First, the purpose of the typical process is to weave a comfort blanket and eliminate risk. It can be found in every kind of business and in all of them it is a fool's errand. Fundamentally, strategy is a bet. Costs are a matter for us, but revenue is up to the clients, and we cannot control their choices. Risk is ever present, and I think lawyers find it especially hard to live with. The typical lawyer is highly intelligent, but tends to be cautious, suspicious, analytical to a fault and terrified of personal failure. These qualities make great advisers, but poor entrepreneurs. They explain why so many of us struggle not with doing the work, but winning it, bringing innovation to pricing and working practices, establishing competitive advantage and exploiting our markets to the full.
  • The second point Martin makes is that strategy and management are not the same, but are often confused. Once we have decided our strategy, effective management is essential to implement it – setting goals, assigning responsibilities, winning our people's support, measuring outcomes and adapting as necessary. This may involve a great deal of detail, but all of it is a means of achieving strategic objectives, not the strategy itself. It is a truth not universally acknowledged, but illustrated dramatically by Stewart, that if strategy cannot be articulated in a few concise sentences, it is probably not any good.

In a commercial context, his three questions can be reduced to two:

  • Where do we play?
  • How do we win?

"Where do we play?" means, "What markets should our firm be in now, and what markets should we aspire to be in?" "How do we win?" means, "How do we stand out?" What informs clients' buying decisions, and in what proportion? Is it black-letter competence? Service and client experience? Strength in depth? Price? Geography? Personal chemistry? Sleek hair? (Okay, maybe not the hair.) What is the competition doing and how do we compare?

Risk-free strategy is an oxymoron, but there are a variety of ways in which risk can be minimised and these questions addressed. All of them require careful thought, but none involve rocket science.

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. e: stephen@stephengold.co.uk; t: 0044 7968 484232; w: www.stephengold.co.uk; twitter: @thewordofgold

Filed Under: Practice of Law

Relevant Articles
Area of Interest