How General Carl von Clausewitz Would Run a Law Firm

English: Carl von Clausewitz

English: Carl von Clausewitz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of the early great thinkers about management and leadership took their ideas from the military world. The words ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ originated in the armed forces. So it’s interesting to re-examine what relevance military thinking might have on running a law firm business today.

One of the famous military strategists is Sun Tzu, who wrote ‘The Art of War’. Much has been written about his thinking about strategy, tactics, terrain and the use of intelligence.

One of the first western thinkers about military affairs was Carl von Clausewitz. He was a Prussian who fought in France during the French Revolution and then afterwards in Russia. His thinking is summarised in his book ‘On War’, which was published after his death.

Here are some of his key thoughts:

  1. Develop a plan which everyone commits to – Commit totally with personnel and with resources
  2. Effective scouting is vital, so you know your enemies strengths and weaknesses
  3. Pick a weak spot to attack
  4. Beware the fog of war

Here is how these military concepts have relevance to running a legal business in a competitive market:

  1. Develop a plan which everyone commits to – Commit totally with personnel and with resources

In war, it’s a poor idea to try to breach the enemy lines half-heartedly. Similarly, law firms probably won’t achieve competitive advantage or get famous for anything if they spread themselves too thinly!

Decide what to be really good at and build a team to deliver. It’s better to be a top firm recognised in the legal directories and thereby attract top talent and premium work, than be a third tier firm in everything, doing lower grade work.

Many firms allow partners to run practices in isolation from other partners. If you can build a team that is all committed to the same outcome, you’ll more likely make a breakthrough. Ask yourself, are you a firm that combines its talents for the good of your clients, or are you just a firm of individual partners.

2.      Effective scouting is vital, so you know your enemies strengths and weaknesses

An army would often use a ‘point man’ to bring intelligence back as to enemy formations.

I’m surprised law firms don’t put more emphasis on competitor information. I recommend you find out what your rivals are good at and what they’re not good at.

Beware of rumours – they’re often wrong! If you’re not sure about your competitors, ask your clients. They’ll tell you.

3.      Pick a weak spot to attack

Great battles are usually not won by attacking the enemy big guns! Law firms will do better to target an area the incumbent firm is ignoring or is weak in. This might be:

  • a particular practice area (eg environmental for real estate work or tax for corporate or finance work)
  • a geographical area (eg no local office in Cheltenham or Poland)
  • a process that you’re better at (eg using matter management processes, fee estimating, using extranets to update clients etc).

Don’t seek to replace the rival for all the work in one go. Go for smaller, more win-able steps.

4.      Beware the fog of war

Clausewitz commented that many military campaigns suffered because, during noisy, chaotic engagements, nobody knew what was happening. For law firms, when several aspects are changing all around you (such as in a merger, for example), everything can seem confusing.

It is probably impossible to provide too much information in such situations. Without official channels of communication, the grapevine will thrive and unintended messages will spread.

Most firms would benefit from a bit more Clausewitz thinking. One final thought – he also wrote ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’. So don’t see planning as a one-off activity – it needs to be a living, adapting process.

Happy military campaigns!

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