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INSIGHT: SWAT Team Training, Tactics Offer Lessons for Attorneys

Aug. 5, 2019, 8:01 AM

A few years back, two of us had the privilege of joining a SWAT team in New Orleans responding to a call for a barricaded subject with an assault rifle. To be clear, by “joining” we mean observing from the safety of the command vehicle. If you’ve never seen a SWAT Roll, it’s something to behold.

SWAT members are some of the best trained men and women in a police department. They are carefully selected, outfitted with high tech gear, and given countless hours of scenario-based training. As a result, they typically go about their task with thoughtfulness, deliberation, and precision.

Like a SWAT team, a lawyer’s specialized knowledge and training arm us with a variety of tools to solve problems before resorting to the big guns (i.e., litigation). To give us all more access to these tools—and a greater willingness to use them—we offer the following three lessons from SWAT.

Think Before Acting

The first thing a SWAT team does at the scene of a critical incident is evaluate the situation. They look for information that will help them assess the risk of various approaches. Is someone in immediate need? Is time on their side? Who are the key players? What is driving their decisions? In short, they think.

Dealing with organizational crises (whether in the context of a corporation, a university, or any other entity) similarly requires, first and foremost, thought. Thinking about a problem before we act gives us the opportunity to see the bigger picture—to look at the issue through a wide-angle lens rather than a telephoto lens.

What is the root cause of the problem? Is it just a legal issue, or is there an underlying institutional or cultural issue? Are there business imperatives or reputational risks that must be considered also or even first? If we attack the manifestation of the problem, will we actually cure the root cause of the problem? What does the organization’s mission, vision, and values tell us about how we should respond?

As lawyers’ plates become fuller, and as clients understandably become more cost conscious, we run the risk of thoughtfulness falling to the bottom of our toolbox, when it actually should be the first tool we reach for in a crisis situation.

Slow Down the Scene

Ask any police officer who has been on the streets for a while and he/she will tell you the dangers of being in a hurry. You miss things—sometimes obvious things. You make mistakes. You lose sight of opportunities for safer resolutions of problems.

To fight against these risks, police officers are taught to take a breath and give themselves a chance to break through the tunnel vision that often goes hand-in-hand with high stress situations. Police officers call this “slowing down the scene.” And study after study confirms the wisdom of this advice in areas well beyond policing.

When lawyers don’t take time to think, evaluate, and deliberate, we similarly risk tunnel vision and miss opportunities for more effective, comprehensive solutions.

Use All the Tools in Our Toolbox

A SWAT team has a wide range of tools at its disposal. Some of them—firearms, battering rams, armored vehicles—are quite intimidating. But these typically are the last tools a SWAT team calls upon. Far more often, a SWAT team reaches into its toolbox for subtler tools; tools like communication, negotiation, deliberation, and patience.

For a lawyer’s clients, a crisis can feel like a sucker punch. It comes fast, without warning, and usually feels unfair. There is an understandable temptation to respond in kind: Strike back, deny, shoot the messenger, go on the offensive, or take ‘em to court. Often, however, these responses exacerbate the problem.

Lawyers, like SWAT officers, have lots of high-impact weapons at our disposal to go after the other side, but we should try to use them as a last resort. After all, in litigation as in law enforcement, once you pull the trigger there likely will be significant collateral damage (not to mention the truckloads of paperwork).

Most lawyers are not SWAT-trained police officers, but we do bring to the table our own specialized expertise, weapons, and tactics. We generally are a thoughtful bunch. We have a foundation of extensive training to help us think through problems and find solutions beyond the strictly legal.

We often (not always, but often) have time on our side. And as with SWAT teams, our toolboxes are filled with all sorts of multi-function tools to help us solve problems; tools like thoughtfulness, creativity, patience, communication, and de-escalation. We submit, in most cases, these tools should be the first ones we reach for to solve our clients’ problems. More often than not they will lead to a faster and cheaper resolution than our heavy weaponry.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

About the Authors

Jonathan Aronie is the leader of Sheppard Mullin’s Government Contracts and Internal Investigations Practice Group.

David Douglass, a former federal prosecutor, and Joseph Jay are longtime, white collar defense lawyers. In 2013, Aronie and Douglass were appointed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to serve as federal monitors over the New Orleans Police Department consent decree.

The authors are resident in the Sheppard Mullin Washington, D.C., office, and are founding partners of the firm’s Organization Integrity Group, which focuses on achieving multi-disciplinary solutions to complicated problems faced by corporations, higher education institutions, health care entities, and other large organizations.