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Of wild dogs and wildebeests: What litigators can learn from the wilderness

3 tips gleamed from a trip in the African sunshine

Recently, my family and I traveled to South Africa for vacation and spent part of the time there in a game preserve in the Sabi Sands region viewing the extraordinary animal life and shooting lots of pictures. It was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend a trip there. While the whole point of any vacation is obviously to get away from the office, as always, I couldn’t help thinking about work, at least some of the time. There was one moment in the trip I found particularly instructive.

One morning, we found ourselves watching a pack of wild dogs lazing about in the African sunshine. These are magnificent creatures—lithe, graceful, intelligent and highly endangered. They hunt collaboratively and have the highest success rate of any of the great African predators; more than 80 percent of their hunts result in a kill. But, at that moment, hunting seemed the furthest thing from their minds.

Suddenly, the pack began to stir. It was time to eat. They spotted a potential quarry, a wildebeest calf, part of a small herd of wildebeests not far away. They began their attack. Thrilled, we followed the pack as it approached the herd.

Wild dogs are not particularly large animals. Wildebeests are far larger and stronger. But the dogs are relentless and will chase an animal down until it can run no farther. In this instance, the pack sought to create panic in the herd and induce the herd to run in the hopes of separating the calf from its mother.

This time, however, despite their self-evident fear, the herd did not run. Instead, the adults formed a protective shield around the calf with their formidable horns facing out toward the dogs, ready to fight them off. The dogs hesitated and then decided not to attack. They withdrew to look for easier prey. The fortunate calf lived, for the time being. Whew.

Apart from being intensely fascinating, I actually think there are some lessons for litigators in this encounter between wild dogs and wildebeests, not so much to be learned but to be reinforced.

  1. If under attack, do not panic. The wildebeests won this particular encounter because they behaved contrary to the expectations and hopes of the wild dogs. They did not succumb to their fears but stayed calm and organized themselves into the best possible defensive position and held their ground. This is a fundamental tenet of litigation that companies learn and forget and relearn all the time. No good comes of panic, nothing but recriminations, missteps and failure.

  2. If attacking, be bold. Though the wild dogs lost this particular encounter, there was nothing flawed in their initial plan. The fact is that this approach usually works. Certainly a more cautious approach would have been even more likely to fail. So, if you are going on the attack, then attack. “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1)

  3. If your attack fails, move on. The wild dogs attacked, but they were not foolish about it. The point of their hunt is to secure the means of living. It is not to lose precious members of the pack to pointless death. So, when they saw there was no opening and that their plan had failed, they just withdrew. For them, as for us litigators, there is always another quarry.

PD Villarreal

PD Villarreal is senior vice preisdent of global litigation at GlaxoSmithKline.

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