Michael P. Maslanka, assistant professor of law, UNT Dallas College of Law.
Michael P. Maslanka, assistant professor of law, UNT Dallas College of Law. (Danny Hurley)

I hope all enjoyed a reflective Memorial Day. There is much lawyers can learn from the military experience. I am reminded of this daily because 11 percent of our student body are veterans. Here are several portable ideas that cut across several areas: communication; planning; leadership. And, as a nod to the times, ethical decision making.

Idea No. 1: Put muscle into ethics. So much of “ethical” decision making in civilian life is composed of hot air: Can you look at yourself in the mirror? What would mom do? Can you act as if no one is watching? Useless. By contrast, the military provides principled analysis. At West Point, cadets are taught to ask three questions about a proposed course of conduct: (1) Does this action attempt to deceive anyone or allow anyone to be deceived?; (2) Does this action gain or allow the gain of privilege or advantage to which I or someone else would not otherwise be entitled?; and (3) Would I be satisfied by the outcome if I were on the receiving end of this action? One word: actionable.

Idea No. 2: B.L.U.F. And speaking of actionable, embrace this idea: Bottom. Line. Up. Front. As Steven Stark notes, so much legal writing is like a mystery novel. All and well for John Grisham but not lawyers for the working day. Instead, try BLUF. I practiced with a former Army officer who served in Iraq and explained that the military taught her this concept. Genius. While I was first chair to her second, she often taught me more than I did her.

Idea No. 3: If you got one, you got none! This is courtesy of the United States Marine Corps. It speaks for itself (as does much of Marine Corps wisdom). So give it a thought as you decide whether to pack an extra hard drive of your speech to an out-of-town gig or bring extra pens/highlighters for a lengthy deposition. You get the drift. I have never looked at the world quite the same way after I learned this expression. Can we hear a Oorah!?

Idea No. 4: Embrace commander’s intent. Chip Heath and Dan Heath discuss this concept in “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” This idea is embraced by effective in-house counsel and first chair litigators. The commander sets out the broad goals of the mission and provides a measuring stick on how to achieve them. Then, subordinates in the field ask themselves two questions: (1) “If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must (fill in the blank)”? and (2) “The single most important thing we must do tomorrow is (fill in the blank).” The idea is to allow flexibility and creativity. Why? Because as is also taught in military academies: “fight the fight, not the plan.” Here is Admiral Nimitz and part of his commander’s intent before the battle of Midway was “you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk.” If you can get a solid punch in at the enemy without getting knocked out yourself, do it. And so the U.S. Pacific fleet did.

Idea No. 5: Three lessons from Midway. First, be solid, not perfect. The United States won at Midway. The enemy demanded perfection from its ships, so it left two carriers in the harbor because they had sustained damage at the Battle of the Coral Sea. By contrast, we had three carriers, one of which sailed despite being badly damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea. Think about this the next time you are racing to get a TRO filed.

Second, the commander’s intent allowed Admiral Spruance the flexibility to launch his planes first and catch the enemy by surprise. The idea works. Third, be brave. We lost all our torpedo planes that made first contact with the enemy. But their bravery allowed the dive bombers to catch up and the battle was ultimately won. On this last point, our 1L students just finished their Moot Court competition. Some of them were afraid but they persevered. I told them this: Aristotle taught us that if we keep doing what we fear, we will get better and better at it and then someday our aspirations will align with our reality.

Idea No. 6: Be professional. On this, lawyers and the military align. Professional comes from “professus.” In Ancient Rome, advocates and physicians went to the town square and professed that the needs of others came ahead of their own needs. So too does the military, which teaches that what is good for the individual is not always good for the organization. Mission must come first, self-interest last.