Last June, in observance of Memorial Day, I discussed five ideas that lawyers can learn from the military. This month, in observance of Veterans Day, we pick up another five.
No. 1: “There is always one more thing that you can do to increase your odds of success!” That’s Lt. Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Hal Moore, a real-life hero depicted in the movie “We Were Soldiers Once.” He repeats this phrase like a mantra to his soldiers. It’s 1967. They are shipping out to fight in the Vietnam War. It is a mindset we as lawyers should likewise embrace: Read that case that came out last week and spend extra effort in running your opening by a colleague; shoot out a late night email to your jury consultant about a new angle to a trial. Keep fighting until the fight is over just as Moore and his soldiers did at the Battle of la Drang Valley.
No. 2: “Is the squeeze worth the juice?” This is courtesy of one of our students, an enlisted soldier who rose to the rank of major. The military deals with actionable advice, often phrased in plain and simple words that deliver an effective message. Why is this message effective? Because it’s memorable. It sticks. Everyone will understand what you are talking about. Yes, you could use the blah, blah, blah of return on investment, litigation and trial costs, budgetary constraints. But what do you want? Glazed-over eyes or memorable mental images?
No 3: “Your soldiers won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Another quote from a student. He used it in Effective Oral Communication when giving a three-minute talk on the person he most admires. The student was a new Army officer, and this quote came from his commanding officer. This is what his commander told him: “You eat last. You shower last. You are the first to rise and the last to retire. Your soldiers won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The quote sums up the credo of all professionals—military, legal, medical—that the needs of others come before their needs.
No 4: Good enough is good enough. It is June 1942. The American Pacific Fleet is in shambles after Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea. Only two carriers (the Hornet and the Enterprise) are operational. The Lexington, battered badly at the Coral Sea, will purportedly take months to be seaworthy. Word now comes in that a Japanese fleet is sailing toward Midway Island. Adm. Chester W. Nimitz gives the Lexington 72 hours to sail within the rest of the fleet. It does. By contrast, the Japanese fleet has six carriers, all operational. But two got their hair mussed up at the Coral Sea, are not in perfect condition and thus do not sail. (For a great read on Midway, look at “Carnage and Culture” from Victor Davis Hansen.) The odds are evened and the war is decided.
As in war, so too in law. Hustling to get out a temporary restraining order, a lawyer does not have time to seek perfection; she only needs to make it good enough to get granted. A client emails some facts on a pressing predicament. No time to craft an ideal initial response. But time enough to get back ASAP. Yes, an A is a worthy goal, but a B will often do the trick. Aspire to a B.
No. 5: Three lessons from Gettysburg Commanding Gen. George Meade arrives, in pitch blackness, to Union headquarters at the end of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He asks just one question of his officers: “Is it good ground?” (Or, as a student who served as an officer in Iraq likes to say, “vital ground.”) The answer from Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock is “yes,” and the following day 28-year-old lawyer Col. Strong Vincent—without orders—makes good on that answer by securing Little Round Top. Col. Joshua Chamberlain (an academic by training and a warrior by scholarship) holds this high ground against relentless Confederate attack.
Lesson one: Study. Go to CLE. Prepare yourselves just like Chamberlain. Lesson two: It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission (this from the first female admiral in the Coast Guard explaining how she became an admiral). Just like Vincent, who saw a pressing need and acted on it. Lesson three: Create “good ground” for your client by drafting favorable arbitration agreements or choice of law clauses or forum selection provisions. Meade knew the right question to ask. We, too, should ask it of ourselves and of our clients.
I will end with this. Our students who are veterans have taught me many things. Here is one: Good ground is not merely a tactical advantage. It is a moral and an ethical one as well. At West Point, the cadets are taught “Three Rules of Thumb” in deciding whether to take an action: Does this action deceive anyone or attempt to deceive anyone?; Does it permit me an advantage to which I am not otherwise entitled?; And would I be satisfied with the outcome if I was on the receiving end of the action?
Their bottom line lesson: Good ground is also the high ground.
Maslanka is an assistant professor at UNT Dallas College of Law.