This week I have gone back through the last several “Ten Things” posts and, man, am I wordy!   There is a lot to digest there (ChatGPT, marketing law, managing people, etc.) and I hope it hasn’t caused any of you to give up and look for someone with a pithier style.  I think the problem is that there is so much good stuff to write about on any of the topics I select that I am having a harder time than ever keeping things concise. And… well, shit.  There I go again – off on a tangent.  Sorry!  Okay, let’s reel this in before it gets out of control, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster going medieval on the local villagers.  Seriously, I have intentionally set out this month to write something shorter and punchier.  Let’s see how I do.

Last week I was jabbering on about something or other and Mrs. Ten Things says, “You always say that.  It’s like a motto.”  Well, that got me thinking and I realized that she was – as usual – right.  I have a lot of sayings that I repeat frequently because they make my point quickly and succinctly (unlike my blogs apparently).  That got me mulling over my time as general counsel and some of the things I said repeatedly for exactly the same reason, i.e., over the course of a long career I was able to spot issues or problems and would use a simple, short phrase to convey what I thought we needed to do.[1]  If you cut out the profanity, they are even shorter.  A while back, I posted my rules all in-house counsel should live by.  Now I want to share ten maxims[2] that will make your life as in-house counsel easier if you keep them on your lips and dear to your heart, i.e., this edition of “Ten Things” will set out ten of my favorites[3] along with a short (I hope) explanation of what I am trying to say:

1.  There is always another side to the story.  One problem I had early in my in-house career was that I pretty much bought whatever the business or my team was telling me about a dispute, the contract, HR problems, etc.  Over time, I learned that this is an easy way to get burned.  Fortunately, one of my earliest mentors taught me to always triangulate and verify whatever you are being told – no matter the source. Regardless of how strongly you feel about what you are being told (or your initial position on something) always remember that there is another side to the story and your job as in-house counsel (or manager) is to draw that out so you can give the best advice – or take the best action – possible.[4]

2.  You can’t break the rules if there are no rules.  When I first started in-house, I decided that I was going to be a good rule follower – even if there were no rules!  Meaning, I would often create rules and apply those to different situations I encountered.  The problem is that by doing this I was stifling my ability to be as creative as possible.  To start, if there are company rules, department rules, or rules of professional responsibility, follow them.  Period.  If not, feel free to take advantage of the green space to do what you want to do, tell the story you want to tell, and use the full scope of your lawyer superpowers to solve problems.  In other words, stop unnecessarily hemming yourself in and take some risks.  Not because you are a thrill seeker, but because the payoff can be huge.  A frequent example I use has to do with legal department KPIs.  When I was first approached to create them for my legal department, I demanded that the business tell me exactly what they wanted measured even though it was clear that they had no idea other than they just wanted some KPIs from the legal department.  That is, I wanted the rules.  Ultimately, I realized that this lack of rules was a tremendous opportunity to create a narrative about the legal department the way I wanted to, i.e., tell the story the way I wanted to tell it.  I didn’t lie or make stuff up, but I was thoughtful about the KPIs I selected and sure to put the department in the best light possible.  So, instead of asking yourself what the rules are, ask yourself this:  “What do I want to do and what’s stopping me from doing it?” If the road ahead is clear, sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.[5]

3.  “Thank you” is free.  There are lots of ways to reward people with money, gifts, promotions, cars, jet skis, and so on.  But one of the most effective ways to reward someone – and one they will truly appreciate – is to simply recognize their efforts and say, “thank you.”  It costs nothing but has a huge impact.  Even today, after being a lawyer for a long time, I truly enjoy hearing someone recognize what I have done and say ‘thanks.’[6]  You can make it even more powerful (but still free) by including their manager in your note of thanks. And you’ll make a friend for life in the business or the department.

4.  Win the small print.  If you have been a lawyer long enough, you realize that there are a lot of “photo ops” with the practice of law, that is things that look good but don’t really drive or protect value.  This is particularly true in contract negotiations.  At the end of the day, give up on the things that don’t matter and let the other side claim some type of “victory lap”  If it doesn’t matter, who cares?  Instead, develop an iron ass and grind on,[7] because focusing on the small print (the details) is where winning truly manifests itself – usually years later.  Win the small print and you win the deal, the litigation, the investigation, or whatever.

5.  Everyone likes guys with ties.  When you are an in-house lawyer, no matter how low-key and informal the business may be, people are far more likely to respect and follow the advice of someone who looks, acts, and sounds the part.  In other words, business leaders have certain expectations about lawyers (good or bad).  How welcome you are to join the conversation, how seriously they take your advice (or you) depends on many factors, including whether you are dressed like someone they can trust or the guy who will be trimming the hedges out by the parking lot.  Always be professional, thoughtful, and ready to attend a meeting with the C-Suite or board of directors.  You don’t have to actually wear a tie or dress,[8] but shorts and flip-flops ain’t gonna cut it – and shouldn’t cut it – in the legal department.  But when the guys with ties show up, everyone sits up straight and pays attention.

6.  Doing something beats doing nothing.  Everyone likes the home run ball, i.e., scoring runs in a hurry.  But, small ball (singles, doubles, stolen bases) wins a lot more games than standing around on the field waiting for someone to crush one out of the park.[9]  The same is true in business and in the legal department.  I captured this concept in a “Ten Things” blog post called “The Productive Power of Little Things.”  I am a huge believer in making a little bit of progress over time as an effective way to get things done.  Spending ten minutes on a project is better than spending zero.  A half an hour is better than 15 minutes. And so on. Doing nothing, on the other hand, is a very effective way to get nothing done – like standing around and waiting for the home run.  Doing something to advance the ball is always better than doing nothing.

7.  Be the boss you would want to work for.  We have all had our share of great and crappy bosses.  If you get the opportunity to be a manager of people, be the type of boss you would want to work for.  If you keep that top of mind, you will solve 80% of what it takes to be a good manager.  This also applies if you are running a project and the people working with you are not necessarily direct reports.  Treat everyone the way you would want to be treated if you were in their position, be the person everyone is excited to work with and talks about in a positive light.[10]

8.  Checklists are gold.  Lawyers are always looking for ways to be more productive, to get more out of each hour or day.  For many, that can mean big technology implementations or elaborate process reviews/Six Sigma, etc.  For me, the easiest way to be more productive is fairly practical, i.e., create checklists that cover situations you deal with repeatedly.  The obvious one is for contract review, which ensures you are not spending time trying to remember all the core issues you need to remember, allowing you to focus on the small print.  The same is true for litigation intake, trademark reviews, internal investigations, and on and on.  When I was general counsel, one of the best things we did as a team was create a series of “one-pagers” setting out standard operating procedures for a wide variety of legal department tasks.  These were short documents designed to save time, but also useful in case anyone left the department or was hit by a bus,[11] to set out what someone new to the task needed to know and do, e.g., passwords, contacts, links, etc.  Checklists are easy to create, easy to use, and cost practically nothing.  In other words, checklists are gold!

9.  You are responsible for you.  I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to manage people.  I actually enjoy the task a lot.  One thing I realized early in my career and something that I have tried to pass on to those who worked for me is that, at the end of the day, you are responsible for you.  If you don’t succeed it is rarely because someone sabotaged you or held you back (unless that person is the one you see in the mirror each morning).  The first rule in getting ahead in the legal department is taking responsibility for your career.  Be proactive.  Seek out opportunities, don’t wait for them to drop in your lap.  Ask for feedback (and accept feedback – even if negative – as a way to learn to be better and not as a personal affront).  Realize that no one is perfect and everyone screws up something – but the smart in-house lawyers own their mistakes and learn from them.  They don’t pass the buck or blame others – they lead from the front.  Lastly, and with all seriousness, if you are unhappy with your job, go find a different one.  Don’t be miserable and don’t make others miserable along with you.

10.  If you haven’t read it in three months, you’re not going to read it.  I have so many good intentions when it comes to reading articles, case briefs, summaries, CLE materials, or whatever.  But I have come to the realization that if three months have gone by and I have not read it, it’s time to delete it or toss it.  The message here is don’t become a hoarder of information you are not going to use and clear out the stuff that doesn’t really matter.  If it did matter, you would have read it already.  Plus, it feels really good to delete things or toss them in the recycle bin!

*****

I have more.  Like, “no one should ever wear a mullet” – which may be more of a personal philosophy than a maxim.  Still, that doesn’t make it any less true.  Anyway, I am a big fan of finding maxims or mottos or whatever you want to call them that can quickly (and vividly) make your point.  If any of you have a maxim you’d like to share, post it in the comments below or on LinkedIn.  I’d like to see what others have to say (literally).  Even better, I kept this post to well under 3000 words!  Which means I will leave you with one last maxim, “Shorter is always better!”

Sterling Miller

July 31, 2023

I am working hard on book number six on productivity.  It is looking like a late 2023 or early 2024 release.   But, my fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center is available right now, including as an eBook!  As the ABA says, “Every in-house lawyer should own this book!”  Now, that’s maxim I really like!  You can buy it HERE.

Cover

Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are also on sale on the ABA website (including as e-books).

I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.

If you have questions or comments, or ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net, or if you would like a CLE for your in-house legal team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com.

[1] If you have worked for me in the past, this may be a little boring.  So, you are free to go check out something way more interesting, like  Contract Nerds.

[2] I wasn’t sure what to call them actually.  Are they sayings? Adages? Axioms? Principles?  I guess it doesn’t really matter and thank God I stuck this meandering thought in the footnotes where no one will read it.

[3] I have so many more than ten.  Talking to me must be like having a poor man’s version Mark Twain living in your guest room year-round.  Who the hell wants that?

[4] And, yes, people may get mad at you for not falling hook, line, and sinker for the company position.  They will ask you, “Whose side are you on?”  The response, of course, is “I am on the company’s side, but I cannot do my job correctly unless I explore all the facts and try to understand how each side is thinking.”

[5] That’s another maxim, but I am not counting it against my ten.  And it’s free.  So, you’re welcome.

[6] I will also accept gifts, money (check or credit card), and promotions…

[7] Yes, another free one.

[8] This is intended to cover everyone, not just men (though in the US anyway, “guys” is taking on non-gender specific use).  Still, “guys with ties” just works to convey what I am thinking here.

[9] I apologize if you are not familiar with baseball analogies.  Here is an excellent primer on the game in case you need it: https://www.rookieroad.com/baseball/101/.  Just be thankful I am not using cricket analogies because then we would all be screwed.

[10] And not the asshole everyone despises. ¿Verdad, Tomas?

[11] I, in fact, have not known anyone who has been hit by a bus.  Have you?  Maybe we should change this to hit by a Frisbee.  That I have seen.  Though, it rarely takes someone out completely.  It just leaves a mark.  Crap.  Another tangent.  Sorry!