Law-firm management with a military mindset

After a career in the Royal Canadian Navy, Tim Syer pivoted to the law profession

Law-firm management with a military mindset
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Tim Syer

Military officers study and practice leadership as if their lives depend on it. The ability to encourage team members to undertake challenging and stressful tasks can mean the difference between a successful mission and disaster.

As a naval officer, I learned the importance of skillful and deliberate leadership. In my legal practice I have found that lessons in military leadership apply to make my team more effective and productive.

A military leader empowers their troops with information. The more the troops know, the more certainty they have. This significantly aids morale and has two important collateral benefits: a subordinate can step into the boots of an incapacitate leader and troops understand the commander’s intent (more on that below).

In my practice, I share more information about my files, my goals and my expectations with my staff than they need to do their discrete tasks. This increases predictability, while reducing the tension wrought by anticipation and unpredictability. Having the full picture of our business makes staff feel like a more integral and valued part of the team.

Naval officers gather and brief their team regularly. Naval officers will meet at least one morning per week (usually Monday) – this is known as ‘prayers.’ The purpose of prayers is for the senior officers to apprise junior officers of medium- and long-term plans and operations.

I meet with my team every Monday morning. We chat and discuss priority files are and how I expect they will develop through the week. I’d suggest implementing a standing meeting, weekly, monthly or whatever is appropriate. Discuss developments since the last meeting and ensure that everyone has a chance to speak to something – encourage everyone to contribute.

Troops must know their commander’s intent to achieve mission objectives. A leader cannot give orders for every possible scenario that may arise in the fog of war, but if the troops understand their commander’s intent, they can improvise, adapt plans and carry out the mission without further orders.

At our weekly meetings, I convey my intent for each active file along with my intent for our teams’ practices and procedures. This allows my team to operate with less direction from me. This saves me time and empowers them.

On the bridge of an operational warship, communication must be concise and efficient. My observation to the Captain that there is a dangerous rock on our port bow is not helpful unless it is accompanied by a recommendation on how to avoid the danger. For efficiency, immediately follow the fact with the recommendation.

Fact/Recommend is a mantra with my team. The way that I teach this is to encourage my team to anticipate the question – always anticipate the question when conveying information (with me or with a client). When conveying information, my staff should think about how it will be received and what questions it will raise. Answering the question is the recommendation.

Asking my staff for recommendations empowers them. They feel like I value their input (and I do). This also aids in their professional development as it results, with constructive feedback, in a virtuous learning cycle.

Leaders in the military require their troops to do unpleasant and dangerous things. When a subordinate exceeds expectations, a good leader will call attention to that behaviour and incent it. Rewards are delivered swiftly and, where appropriate, publicly. Public demonstrations of praise instil pride in an organization.

The rewards at my disposal are very limited; I rely mostly on praise. When my staff excel, I will offer concise and specific praise for that in front of the rest of the team. I am careful not to dilute my praise by offering it freely and by ensuring that I am as quick to correct behaviour (see below) as I am to reward it. Also, when people have worked exceptionally hard, cut them loose early on a Friday afternoon.

Don’t forget to pass on praise of others’ team members to their leaders. Praise for a member of another team lets them know that they are appreciated in the office (and that others are watching).

Troops will get up to no good in the military. Where behaviour warrants correction, it is important that the offending behaviour be called out and punishment be swift. Then, life goes on. Moving on after a correction should not be confused with forgetting or ignoring patterns of behaviour. A series of small course-corrections can be more effective than one large one.

Where my staff miss something, I point it out quickly and dispassionately. If I expect that the miss resulted from a flaw in the process, then I will frame it in the form of a question – why did you miss this? We have open and frank conversations involving the whole team. There is no shaming and we treat mistakes as an opportunity to improve our processes. Often, my staff will take an issue away and sort out among themselves how the mistake arose and what their fix is (Fact/Recommend). Dealing with mistakes forthrightly engenders a culture of accountability.

Where mistakes are made, leave no stone unturned to find out why. Even if the cause seems banal, addressing and remedying the cause of the mistake will make it less likely recur and will reduce the shame in bringing mistakes forward.

Consistently applying these principles builds trust over time. A team that trusts one another will be transparent and accountable. Being able to trust my team empowers them and makes us all more efficient. You don’t need to run your office like a warship, hopefully you’ll see some benefit in these principles of military leadership.

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