Operation crisis management

After the fall of Afghanistan and the military support delivered during COVID, Maj Gen Alex Taylor CB, director for the Army Legal Services branch, knows about delivering legal advice in a crisis. He shares what other in-house lawyers can learn from his experiences in extreme circumstances.
A man in army uniform looks at a computer screen.

Providing legal advice in challenging and changing operational environments is what I refer to as the ‘USP’ (unique selling proposition) of the Army Legal Services (ALS).

The ability to support crisis response, including deployment overseas to operate and advise in a hostile (and often kinetic) environment, is what distinguishes us from our civilian legal counterparts.

All ALS officers join as qualified lawyers and undertake professional military training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and bespoke legal training to prepare them to work alongside commanders at all levels across the British Army.

While some challenges and their corresponding legal problems, such as supporting the government in the event of a fuel supply crisis, can be predicted and planned against, many other issues present more complex questions.

The rapid fall of Afghanistan last year, the military response in support of the NHS’ reaction to the COVID pandemic and the request for military support to the Border Force in responding to cross-channel migration are but three recent examples where rapidly evolving geopolitical developments have required flexible, pragmatic and timely legal advice at the point of need.

This article seeks to highlight three lessons from both planned and emergency operations which have been central to my approach in leading a diverse team of uniformed legal advisers.

I believe these lessons translate equally to any private legal practice or in-house legal team advising in challenging, changing and time-sensitive environments.

Invest in and train your team

Officers in the ALS are required to advise across a wide spectrum of legal issues.

Not all are crisis focused: I have lawyers routinely operating in the prosecutorial, employment, cyber, surveillance and international humanitarian law fields.

Other members of the team provide direct and vital legal support to the UK’s Special Forces.

Indeed, my officers migrate through this diverse range of assignments during their careers.

Each domain brings varied challenges and while my team invariably step up to meet them, leaders must invest in their people to provide them with the skills needed in different scenarios.

It is important not only to invest in technical legal skills but also to invest in individuals’ leadership skills. While requirements will vary across disciplines, in the army we operate a strict pre-employment training regime to ensure our people are prepared for future assignments.

This may be achieved through attendance at law of armed conflict courses at leading universities across the UK, our advanced advocacy and international legal issues programmes, or wider staff training conducted at the UK’s Defence Academy.

Alongside the Academy’s King’s College masters programme and our own part-time LLM programme (in which we sponsor four officers a year to undertake a part time LLM at a provider of their choice) this pre-employment training enables me to provide the army appropriately trained lawyers at the right place, at the right time with the right experience.

It also ensures I have a workforce continually learning and developing their legal and leadership skills.

Such investment ultimately is retention positive, professionalises the outputs of the ALS and – perhaps most importantly – ensures commanders and soldiers at all levels are able to understand and effectively manage legal risk.

Understand the client’s intent and your role in achieving it

Like any lawyer, all ALS officers must understand his commander’s (his client’s) intent.

What is their ultimate aim? It may be simple and focused, but more often in a crisis it will be complex, layered and evolving.

Only by fully understanding why a client desires a particular outcome can the lawyer provide the best advice on how to manage legal risk.

ALS officers must, on occasion, be prepared to offer unpalatable and challenging advice. What may seem to offer short-term tactical advantage may cause strategic friction in the longer term.

My lawyers need to have the confidence to provide professional advice without fear or favour, and the faith and conviction that senior colleagues have their back.

Some clients may hold unrealistic expectations. Fully understanding the thought process behind those expectations might enable provision of advice on alternate avenues to achieve lawful mission accomplishment.

To ensure awareness, there is a need, not only for the lawyer to be ‘in the room’ but ideally also to have an effective relationship with the client. This is often more difficult for a dislocated ‘in-house’ legal team.

Members of my team can face such difficulties if deploying at short notice to support a particular operation.

In those circumstances, one must get involved and immersed in the new team, attend meetings and conferences (whether invited or not) and seek full integration, in order to provide the best support and advice.

COVID has presented additional challenges in this regard, as many increasingly work in a dislocated environment.

It is difficult to surge relationships at the point of a crisis and deliver effective advice without some form of established relationship with those you advise.

By establishing relationships with those they advise, and by identifying and understanding potential issues early, I am clear that ALS officers are better able to offer timely and effective legal advice in a crisis.

Plan for your role in crisis

In many respects, ALS officers are lucky in that the commanders and soldiers we support invest a huge amount of time planning and exercising to address possible future crises.

Such activity ranges from small 'tabletop' exercises engaging a handful of individuals, rehearsing a wide range of military counter-terrorist activity, through to large-scale events such as rehearsing war fighting at scale against peer and near peer competitors over weeks and months involving many thousands of troops.

Through participation in such planning and exercise activity, ALS officers can better understand the challenges and effectively rehearse their role.

Importantly, this also allows not only individual officers to rehearse their approach but in larger scale activity ensures team dynamics can also be exercised and tested.

Through engagement, whether with domestic agencies such as police or border force or international allies and partners (we currently have three officers based in the United States) we can understand possible friction points and plan in advance how potential issues can be avoided or overcome.

Again, much is about relationship building but it is also vital to understand the different applicable legal landscapes when operating with allies and partners.

With this approach I genuinely believe my legal officers can act as empowered intellectual force multipliers.

I could say much more on both culture and teamwork. Investment in both is well worth any accompanying cost. Physically and mentally healthy people are those who will continue to deliver for you in the years ahead.

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