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Follow the example of the Navy SEALs and build the framework of an excellent training program

By Michelle Spencer  bio

Recently, an article appeared in The Harvard Business Review entitled “How the Navy SEALs Train for Leadership Excellence,” written by Michael Schrage, an educator and research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business.

In his article, Schrage wrote, “As an educator, I fear world-class business schools and high-performance businesses overinvest in ‘education’ and dramatically underinvest in ‘training.'” He went on to say “When I see just how difficult and challenging it is for so many smart and talented organizations to innovate and adapt under pressure, I see people who are overeducated and undertrained. That scares me.”

Schrage then reviewed what businesses could learn from Navy SEALs’ rigorous training programs, which are built around four principles, namely:

  1. Produce excellence, not “above average”;
  2. Incentivize excellence, not competence;
  3. Incorporate new ideas from the ground; and
  4. Lead by example.

Schrage concluded his article with the suggestion that “for leaders and managers who truly care about their people and their customers, the SEALs training template deserves to be taken seriously.”

Applying the advice to lawyers

Kenneth Grady of Seyfarth Lean Consulting expanded on Schrage’s premise in his two-part article series, “To Train Lawyers Let’s Look to the Navy SEALs.”

“Lawyers,” wrote Grady, “leave school educated, but untrained. What familiarity they gained through clinics with some skills they may use when practicing is not training aimed at competence, much less excellence.”

Grady then discussed the Navy SEALs’ four principles as described by Schrage, suggesting that that these be used to implement “elite training” for lawyers.

Putting the concept into practice

As a legal training consultant, I agree wholeheartedly with both Schrage and Grady. So let’s take the discussion to the next level and look at how to actually build this training program that pursues excellence.

Step 1: Link continuous training to individual and firm-wide success

As Grady notes, in order to produce excellence “training must be continuous, not haphazard.” Getting attorneys to recognize that learning is a continuous process is a big problem many firms face. But another issue is the competing demands on attorneys’ time. Attorneys will not see the value of spending time on training activities until firms include training in their development and compensation plans.

To build excellent training, firm leaders need to start by working with L&D (learning and development) and high performers to identify the skills critical to success in the various areas of practice within their firms. Then, build a framework that rewards development of these critical skills and not just years of practice and hours billed. This is the framework for long-term excellence and success within law firms.

Step 2: Focus on these five skill categories

Training programs need to focus on all skill areas to achieve excellence, not just one or two. This is why professional development and technology training teams within firms must be combined and, in some cases, augmented with outside assistance or content.

There are five skill categories that should be covered:

  1. Conceptual, which covers skills such as decision-making, ethical judgment, strategic thinking, and planning.
  2. Personal, which encompasses areas such as motivation, innovation, and communication.
  3. Interpersonal, which addresses areas such as leadership, negotiation, and consensus building.
  4. Business, which includes accounting, compliance, HR, security, and marketing. Use administrative departments in the firm as a starting point.
  5. Technical, which includes project management, maintaining healthy documents, employing secure electronic data practices, and electronic filing.

Step 3: Explicitly state the required outcomes

The next part of the process must be identifying behaviors that illustrate the different levels of development of those critical skills: Basic, Experienced, and Expert. Specific behaviors need to be stated in order to understand exactly what is required at each level.

For example, effective communication can mean different things to different people, but “writes clearly and concisely” is specific. This specificity is also necessary for judging the success of any training initiative.

Only after you have identified what behaviors constitute excellence using a systematic approach can you begin to develop training programs to teach them and quantify the results.

Step 4: Support your trainers

As Schrage states “ongoing transformation is important for both trainers and trainees.”

Yet Grady asserts that “World-class organizations that value training bring in world-class trainers: top-tier academics and practitioners, not professional trainers without skills and experience in the discipline.”

Grady’s statement is one point I take issue with. Continuing legal education has long been a series of information dumps from a PowerPoint deck, with very little actual learning taking place. Top-tier academics and the Socratic method of teaching are what brought law firms to this point. Law schools everywhere are changing their programs to accommodate more experiential learning and make the education fit the challenges of real life in a law firm. Who better to help craft your program than a trainer who works in a law firm and knows the workflows, pain points, and struggles faced by your attorneys? A well-designed problem-solving challenge and debrief would be much more fitting for a group of attorneys in a training session than yet another slide deck.

If your training team does not possess all of the skills required in this new modern learning environment and you value them as employees, either get them some professional development or bolster the team with strategic hires or consulting to fill the gaps. With a strategic training plan in place, you will reap excellent returns on these investments.

Corporate L&D as a whole is shifting to a new model, which should be much more effective and engaging for participants. With new learning technologies, there is much more support for social and experiential learning versus traditional formal learning based solely on training events. The benefit to the firm is that L&D is now thinking more like the business leaders in order to align their initiatives with the business strategy. Building out the framework described above will accomplish such alignment, but firm leaders must first share their business goals and strategies with L&D.

Step 5: Reconsider the motivators

Grady and Schrage both discuss the need for rewards and consequences. I fear that this will entail much more of the latter than the former, which will not accomplish the goal to “incentivize excellence not competence.” Additionally, most law firms have a very narrow view of what constitutes “rewards.”

While everyone needs raises and appreciates year-end bonuses, things other than money motivate people more effectively. The most powerful motivators are intrinsic and social, not financial. It is much more important to activate these types of motivators (which are also generally less costly).

The single biggest indicator of an employee’s engagement and success is their relationship with their direct supervisor. Plus, the most meaningful reward is easy and inexpensive—recognition by an immediate supervisor. There are many supervisors in law firms. Think of what a difference it would make if they each took time on a regular basis to recognize the individual contributions of their team and supported their skills development.

According to the Temkin Group’s 2015 Employee Engagement Benchmark Study, highly engaged employees are more than twice as likely to help someone at work and three times as likely to do something good for the company that is not expected of them. That’s significant!

People who are motivated and engaged have an enterprise view, make sacrifices for the team or other people, and exercise their discretionary effort to benefit the organization. Gallup research has shown for years that the organization reaps huge financial benefits when this approach is taken and employees are engaged.

At a time when firms are under intense pressure to perform more efficiently, don’t you want all of your people fully engaged and performing at their peak? Taking an active and ongoing role in the process, as opposed to only formalized annual feedback, would lead to even greater engagement and improved performance. Now that would be a transformation!


Grady discusses the role of firm leaders, who must lead by example. It’s true. Training is a waste, if it is never applied. In order for people to apply what they have learned, motivation must be present and the environment must support it.

In general, this means:

  • Use a systematic approach to identify the crucial skills and specific behaviors that lead to excellence;
  • Incorporate training initiatives as a component of attorney development and compensation plans at all levels;
  • Change your firm’s culture by developing meaningful recognition that does not always revolve around compensation; and
  • Work with your training team and respect their ability to build excellent training programs for your environment.

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