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Lawyer Lessons Learned as a Young Artillery Officer

On June 5, 1981, forty years ago, I became a civilian again after three years on active duty in the Army. While I was in law school, I was in the Virginia Army National Guard, but that experience was wholly different than my time as a Field Artillery officer in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). I learned some valuable lessons during my active service, many of which still inform my actions.

Full disclosure: I was not a good lieutenant. Some people have an aptitude for all things military. No one would have accused me of that. I could stand still, and my uniform would somehow get wrinkled and my boots scuffed. When you have issues quickly figuring right and left, drill and ceremonies can be embarrassing. Shortly before I left Ft. Campbell, I ended up having a beer with the Battalion Executive Officer and the Sergeant Major. In my last Army job, the Battalion Commander, the Executive Officer, the Sergeant Major and I shared the same space, so we all knew each other fairly well. I always liked the Sergeant Major, a grizzled and tough Vietnam veteran with a very dry sense of humor. That evening, the Sergeant Major (who had had more than a few beers before we walked into the bar), told me that he liked me because I got things done and didn’t always follow the rules, but it was a good thing I was getting out of the Army because there was no question in his “military mind” that I was a “natural born civilian.” I was a tad offended, but he was 100% right.

As a lawyer, I don’t use my artillery skills, which were actually pretty good. I did learn a number of valuable lessons that have served me well in the practice of law. In no particular order:

  • If you sound and act like you are in control of a situation, most people will assume that you are. Sheer confidence will carry you a long way. Let’s face it, a lot of being a trial lawyer is just that, sheer confidence even when you might not have much to validate such confidence.

  • Just because someone is uneducated or even virtually illiterate does not mean that they are stupid. A number of the sergeants I knew were rough and unpolished characters. I also have no doubt some of them were outright geniuses. Like any trial lawyer, I’ve had more than a few clients and witnesses like that.

  • Be on time; meet deadlines. The correlation is obvious.

  • Know the difference between glass balls and rubber balls. That comes from an old Army saying about juggling tasks. Rubber balls bounce; glass ones break. As lawyers, if we are nothing else, we are jugglers. There is always a lot of stuff in the air. You have to be mindful of the glass balls.

  • Never cast blame publicly, especially on your subordinates. As a lawyer, is there anything lower than faulting your assistant or paralegal to a court or clients? That’s very low in my book.

  • Don’t be thin-skinned. The Army of my day was a testosterone-charged world. Getting “chewed out” went with the territory. One time the Executive Officer was dressing me down and noted that my mother must have done unnatural things to have produced a lieutenant as stupid as me. (Actually, his language was a bit saltier.) This is the same Major I described above. About as often as he put me in my place, we ended up having a few drinks together – sometimes on the same day. Law practice gets heated. Try not to get too offended or at least get over it quickly.

  • Help your colleagues. Most of the young officers I served with tried hard to help each other. Undercutting another officer was considered very bad behavior. Law firms don’t usually operate that way, but they should.

  • “You didn’t tell me to…” is never a good excuse. Take initiative. Be a leader. Better to make a wrong decision and fail than to fail through inaction.

  • Do your job – even if it is not your job. In my last position, I was the Battalion Adjutant. In civilian terms, I was the administrative officer – not that I had any real training for that. I also worked directly with the commander. Our desks were ten feet apart. The commander was a great guy, but he sometimes didn’t like giving bad news. He delegated that to me, even when the bad news was being delivered to someone who outranked me. Addressing the issue of the underwear choices of another officer’s wife was awkward. Actually, it was her lack of underwear, but that is a story for another time. As a lawyer, there are often things you must do even though they are not really lawyer tasks. You do them for the good of the firm or the client.

  • “Prior Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance.” This was true in the Army. It’s true as a lawyer.

  • Expect no sympathy. A great expression from those days was that “sympathy falls between s*** and syphilis in the dictionary.” Feeling sorry for yourself does no good, not in the military and not in practicing law.

  • Appreciate the expertise of others. Sometimes when we were out in the field on cold wet days, equipment would get stuck in the mud. Getting it unstuck is an art – and something that had to be done quickly. I can vividly recall being the officer in charge, but all the time just hoping that that sergeant would know how to get us out of the mud. They always did. I may be the lawyer – I am the senior partner, in fact - but there are a lot of things in the office about which I am clueless and basically helpless.

  • Accept absurdities. I once heard it said that military entities are operations with absolutely serious purposes which operate absurdly. The civilian world is sort of the converse. Neither is entirely true, but the perspective is worth considering.

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.

The truth is that my time in the Army was great training for someone like me. I have often joked that one of the smartest things I ever did was go in the Army. One of the other very smart things I did was get out of the Army. As a military man, I am a great lawyer. I am awfully glad I made both choices so many years ago.

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