TrainingForLawyersThe Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land Teams) are (along with the members of Delta Force) the U.S. military elite. Formally, SEALs are part of the Naval Special Warfare Command and the United States Special Operations Command, in addition to being the Navy’s principal special operations force. Informally, SEALs are legendary as the special operations teams sent to do some of the toughest missions.

The requirements to qualify for even the first step in becoming a SEAL – the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) program – are high. Few make it. Of those that make it into BUD/S, 80% will drop out of the seven-month program before completing it. Then the real work begins. Of those who make it through BUD/S, another 50% will drop out before completing the six-month probationary period. Only those who make it through probation become SEALs and may wear the coveted Trident badge (also known as the “Budweiser Badge”). While the Trident badge is a “no rank” badge, it is customary in the Navy for officers of all rank to step aside and let a SEAL pass in recognition of what it takes to become and stay a SEAL.

The stories of what it takes physically to make it as a SEAL have made it seem like only the Olympian few can get there. While the physical demands of BUD/S and SEAL training are many, the greater challenge is the mental toughness it takes to survive. In fact, some former SEALs have described the physical training as targeted at a level that an average athletic male can endure. Most SEAL candidates wash out because they can’t take the mental challenge, not because of a physical failure.

You might think that once a SEAL candidate receives his Trident, the pace changes to one of maintaining the physical and mental performance levels achieved during training and probation. You would be wrong. SEALs never stop training. Indeed, they train at levels beyond what most people can imagine. Their training isn’t isolated to physical performance. They train in all aspects of warfare, both physical and mental, and they do it relentlessly. A few SEALs go on to the next level and enter the sniper training program. This program is renowned for its difficulty. It is so difficult (at one time the attrition rate was 30%), that SEALs, a group notoriously difficult on those in their ranks who don’t succeed at everything they do, have a custom of not picking on SEALs who go into the sniper training program and don’t make it.

Organizations That Want to be Top Performers Need to Train at an Elite Level

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “How the Navy SEALs Train for Leadership Excellence.” Schrage argues that high-performing businesses and the schools that train leaders for these businesses overemphasize education and “dramatically underinvest” in training. As a result, leaders are not prepared to operate at the high levels required in organizations today.

To find a better model for training, Schrage looked to the Navy SEALs who had significantly improved their sniper training methods. Brandon Tyler Webb, a former Navy SEAL and one-time Navy Special Warfare Command Sniper Course Manager, made “radical changes” to Navy SEAL sniper training. When Webb went through the program in the late 1990s, the dropout rate was around 30%. By radically changing the program, Webb significantly increased the training effectiveness and simultaneously reduced the dropout rate to less than 5%.

Lawyers Don’t Take Training Seriously

As related by Schrage, Webb emphasized four training themes. Schrage did not advocate and I am not advocating that we turn law school into a Navy SEAL-style training program. But, law is a profession for doing things. Whether law school graduates practice law, go into politics, business, or some other endeavor, law school graduates will be out in the world doing things. Lawyers, at least those lawyers who aspire to be the elite of their profession, should look to training models used by the elite in other professions and adopt what works.

Historically, law schools have skipped training, leaving that exercise to legal service delivery organizations. In recent decades, many law schools have recognized the value of training. But, the amount of training received by most law students could best be described as miniscule when compared, for example, to medical students. Not all of the top 20 law schools (using the suspect U.S. News & World Report ranking require a clinical course. Even those schools that do only require a single two or three credit course.

In part 2, I’ll cover the key features of a rigorous training program for lawyers.