Making Their “Numbers Count for Nothing” – Picking Battles to Multiply Force


Now, we will block the Persian coastal assault by rebuilding the great Phocian Wall. And from there, we will funnel them into the mountain pass we call the Hot Gates. Now in that narrow corridor, their numbers will count for nothing. And wave after wave of Persian attack will smash against Spartan shields.”

Many remember this battle strategy (and quotation) from the popular 2006 movie “300.” Fewer know that the Battle of Thermopylae (Greek: “The Hot Gates”) was a real historical event. In 480 B.C., several small Greek city-states, led by Leonidas of Sparta, marched north to accomplish critical objectives: slow the Persian coastal assault to buy time for (1) the main army to gather strength and (2) for the evacuation of Athens. At Themopylae, the Greeks resisted Xerxes I’s mighty Persian invasion force for three days by pinching the Persian force into a narrow mountain pass. They were only undone after a local, Ephialtes, disclosed a secret mountain pass that allowed the Persians to outflank them.

While modern guesses of the respective sizes of the Greek and Persian forces — which estimate 7,000 Greeks (300 men guarded their eventual retreat after Ephialtes’s treachery) and between 120,000 and 300,000 Persians — are slightly more balanced than the 300 Greeks v. millions-or-more Persians in the movie, the real battle remains one of the best historical examples of the advantages of superior training, equipment, nimbleness, and awareness of surroundings as “force multipliers” that can be used to help combat — and overcome — seemingly impossible odds when used correctly as a part of a larger strategy.

While “force multiplier” is a term of military origin, it had been expanded to include any object, method, or system that can be employed to amplify output or increase efficiency. In business, goals are achieved (and new problems are solved) by expending time, money, and human resources. But using up these assets without carefully monitoring their efficacy, or deploying them correctly, risks waste. Xerxes probably learned this the hard way after watching wave upon wave of his superior numbers fail to push through the relatively meek Spartan force. That’s why many businesses take advantage of force multipliers like data, technology, automation, and skilled teams to ensure that the right assets are being deployed to ensure the greatest cumulative effect.

Legal practice should be no different. But somehow, the wisdom accumulated by militaries and businesses over centuries has escaped many lawyers, even though law is one profession in which implementation of force multipliers should be particularly effective. For example, commercial civil litigation can be a complex, drawn-out martial campaign comprised of several years of smaller skirmishes over certain claims, documents, deadlines, and other issues. Sometimes, what begins as a hotly contested dispute can devolve into a war of attrition — each side seeking to gradually wear out the other through a series of small-scale actions. Many litigants do this intentionally to soften their opponent’s resolve, believing that even the superior skills and home-field advantage of Spartan-like opponents will eventually begin to wane. But at the same time, a smaller skirmish — effectively staged — could be the event that tilts the larger tide in a client’s favor.

Lawyers have an extensive toolbox of methods and abilities at their disposal — implements employable in developing a strategy to achieve a client’s overall objective. Litigation is but one of those tools, and at least three force multipliers compound the efficacy of a client’s position in a case: awareness of surroundings, nimbleness, and speed. Used in tandem, these practices will enable a lawyer to frame disputes on their client’s terms pursuant to an overall strategy and make real-time changes when uncontrollable or unwelcome developments occur.

Thus, lawyers should begin every representation by taking stock of the advantages unique to their client’s position, style, temperament, and objectives to set and control the agenda (and even forum) for the conflict. Rather than launch the full might of their client’s resources at each problem unchecked, they must choose which disputes to bring to the attention of the court and the tone of how they should be presented; determine which motions are most likely to deliver the best return for resources spent in drafting them; manage difficulties by making real-time adjustments; and understand when and how to create fertile ground for settlement when it would be in the client’s best interests. None of these goals are best met simply by throwing countless hours and dollars at a lawsuit without deliberate evaluation of how each undertaking will either (1) compound the strength of a client’s position or (2) neutralize opposing strength.

For Xerxes, resources were expendable, and he was unafraid to waste. But Sparta needed to maximize the value of every man, and by bottlenecking the Persians into the Hot Gates, they did so. Even though they were eventually overcome (after betrayal) in this single battle, the maneuver bought them enough time to achieve their larger objectives back home. Their swift reaction to being betrayed ensured many resources would be saved for a resounding victory one year later at the Battle of Plataea — which finally ended the Persian invasion in their favor. The Greeks had combined their available advantages to multiply their force, while keeping sight of the larger mission, and every lawyer must consider how to build a similarly effective strategy in every case.

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