Ten Things: Ten Habits of Highly Effective In-House Lawyers

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have written posts on the keys to being a successful in-house lawyer and the steps to take if you are interested in becoming the General Counsel, the latter being one of the most popular pieces I have written to date. A couple of weeks ago I came across an old, dog-eared copy of Stephen Covey’s 1989 business self-help masterpiece, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  If you haven’t read it, it’s worth picking up a copy.  As I flipped through the pages of the book I realized that most, if not all, of it is still relevant almost 30 years later.  And it got me thinking about some of the things I learned as I advanced in my career as an in-house lawyer.  Through luck, hard work, trial and error, excellent mentors, and other things, I stumbled upon a number of “habits” that I think make for highly effective and successful in-house lawyers.  This edition of “Ten Things” will discuss what I think those habits are:

1.  Carry a notebook and write things down – by hand.  Wherever I went as an in-house lawyer, I carried an 8½x11 black notebook.  In fact, it was a very specific brand and model of notebook – the “Mead Cambridge Limited – Action Planner Item# 06064.”  I still use the same model notebook today.    I like this notebook because it is lined (and numbered) and lends itself to keeping lists and bullet points, with extra spaces for other notes, names, date, etc.  I use a notebook for two reasons.  First, it’s important to capture notes of meetings, phone calls, presentations, etc. You will be amazed how often you refer back to your notebook and your notes.  I also would print out and staple relevant emails, memos, and other documents to my handwritten notes to have an even fuller capture of what transpired.  Second, writing things down by hand is a much more effective way to keep notes than using a laptop or tablet.  When you write notes by hand, it forces you to tighten up the points (i.e., verbatim notes are too much to write) and allows you to focus on the speaker(s) vs. having your head down typing.  This, in turn, allows you to better absorb what’s being said and to be a participant in the meeting vs. a scrivener.  Several recent studies reveal that taking notes by hand allows you to retain far more and with deeper comprehension than typing notes.  Simply put – typing your notes in real time during a meeting gives you a lot of text but more is not better.

2. Have a routine to start your day.  The most effective in-house lawyers have a routine to start their day that rarely varies.  The routine is designed to get them into their job as quickly as possible so they are “up and running” as the day begins.  They get up at the same time every day.  They are out the door and on the road (or at their computer) at the same time.  Once they get to the office, they have a ritual.  For many it’s a cup of coffee and scanning a newspaper or trade papers, e.g., WSJ, News 360, Financial Times, Law.com, etc.  For some, it’s quickly checking through their calendar and email, or daily company reports.  Others like to check out the sports scores or read a few joke news stories at The Onion.  Some just carve out 15-20 minutes to think.  The important thing is that they block out time first thing in the morning to do some task or tasks that get them ready to face the day.  One part of my morning routine (which included bits of all of the above) was to write out the Top Three things I wanted to accomplish that day.  This became my “to do” list.  It was manageable, relevant, and flexible.  Everything you want in a “to do” list.  I highly recommend it. The down side to having a routine to start your day is that if it gets disrupted, you can feel pretty out of sorts — as my wife can attest to.  But, the benefits of the routine far outweigh the downsides of the few times things go askew.

3. Seek the help/opinions of others.  When it comes to habits of effective in-house lawyers, there is a lot to be said about the ability to delegate work.  While this certainly is an important skill, don’t ignore the flip side to delegation, i.e., the willingness to ask other people for help with whatever you are working on.  By this I do not mean asking other people to do your work, but rather the ability to recognize when you may not have all of the knowledge or skills needed to complete the assignment or, more importantly, realizing that a second pair of eyes critiquing your work/ideas can be beneficial.  As to the former, it’s a matter of recognizing your limitations.  We all have them, and there is no shame in reaching out for help.  As to the latter, asking someone to review your work and ideas is one of the best ways to find out if you missed something and if your answer “holds together.”  Having the opportunity to correct/deal with any weaknesses in your work product before it goes to ultimate “decider” is very beneficial.  As to both, the bottom-line is to not be too proud to ask for help or seek other’s opinions. They’ll appreciate being asked.

4. Pick battles carefully.  One of my wisest in-house colleagues use to say that the hardest negotiation we would have regarding the deal was the one that would happen internally at the company.  He was right.  One thing you realize quickly as an in-house lawyer is that everyone has an opinion and an agenda, many think that they can do Legal’s job better than Legal, and there are numerous internal politics you need to navigate every day.  The higher up the chain you go the more pronounced all of this becomes.  A good habit to develop and perfect is to pick your battles carefully.  If you decide that it’s going to be your way or no way on every word, point, issue, and matter, then you are in for a painful career as an in-house lawyer.  It just doesn’t work that way.  You need to pick your battles carefully and fight for things that are truly important and let the rest go.  While you do not want to get a reputation as a push-over who gives in on everything, you do want a reputation as a balanced thinker who tries to find ways to get what the business wants done, but who will push back when you spot an issue of real importance, legal, strategic, ethical, administrative, or otherwise.  Your best friend here is common sense.  Most in-house lawyers have a ton of it, so use it liberally.

5. Take risks.  Few people are effective or successful without taking chances, i.e., “risks.”  If you read my last blog post, you know I believe that people take “risk” because of the positives that can occur when the risk pays off.  In other words, taking the most conservative position is not always the best position. Taking risks can be anything from accepting new responsibilities in the legal department, trying to utilize new technology, or throwing away the “old way” of doing something because you realize that the old way may no longer be the best way.  It can mean taking a chance on a certain litigation strategy, such as a motion to disqualify a biased judge (which can have a real downside if the motion fails) to pushing hard for certain positions or language in a heated contract negotiation.  The common thread occurring in all of these risk-taking scenarios is that the in-house lawyers taking the risk have thought through the steps and consequences of what they are doing before they take the risk, they know how to game theory the risk.  They also have the ability to stay calm under fire or when things are not working out exactly as planned (even if their stomach is churning like mad inside).  Most importantly, they don’t try to fool themselves (or others) by overstating or underselling the risk and the benefits.  Basically, they lawyer the crap out of the risk before they take it.

6. Develop good people skills.  Effective in-house lawyers typically have good people skills.  Strike that.  They have amazing people skills.  They look people in the eye when they speak with them.  They learn and remember names.  They say “hello” and “good evening” to everyone, from the CEO to the janitorial staff.  And they always say “please” and “thank you” for even the smallest consideration from anyone.  They are willing to laugh at jokes made at their expense, are self-aware, and they are generous with deflecting credit to others on their team or in the company.  For some people, this is all perfectly natural.  For most of us, it takes a lot of practice.  For example, whenever I sat down at the table for a meeting, I would draw the table in my notebook (yes, the same black notebook mentioned above) and I would write everyone’s name next to where they were sitting.  If I didn’t know someone’s name, I would just lean over and ask.  Likewise, if I happened to be in the elevator with someone I didn’t know, I would just introduce myself.  It’s amazing how well people respond to something so simple as just saying “Hi, I’m….”  Similarly, if I thought someone outside of Legal was really helpful or did a good job on a project or at a meeting, I would send a short note to their boss just recognizing that fact.  It costs nothing but a few minutes of time, but the payoff in good will down the road is huge.  People skills are in large part thinking about how you would like to be treated in any situation and then simply treating the people around you in that same manner.

7. Get things done.  The ultimate measure of a successful in-house lawyer is “did she get stuff done?”  No matter your people skills, risk taking, daily routine, or whatever, if it doesn’t add up to concrete results it’s not going to matter much at the end of the day.  The math is simple.  Since in-house legal services are a limited commodity, the more you can get done the more valuable you become.  In my experience, the in-house lawyers who “got stuff done” share three characteristics:

  • They don’t procrastinate – they just put their head down and get started.  To paraphrase an old Chinese proverb, “every email starts with the first keystroke.”  In other words, you need to take the first step to get to where you want to go.  So, just get going;
  • They don’t worry about hours, they worry about minutes, i.e., they are looking to use every minute they can to get things done.  Those five minutes you’re waiting for the meeting to start can be spent playing Candy Crush, or you can use those minutes to read a short article or return an email.  Getting things done in large part requires finding the time to do the work.  Don’t waste the minutes;
  • They have a “fire in the belly” that is unmistakable.  They enjoy being a lawyer and have a passion for solving problems.  They enjoy working for the company and the legal department.  They have an enthusiasm that is contagious and even if the project turns into a “slog”, they have the ability to keep things moving forward often through the sheer force of personality and good will.

8. Don’t over-rely on outside counsel.  Having the assistance of outside counsel can be extremely helpful, especially when you are faced with tough litigation or a challenging corporate transaction.  Their experience and depth of bench can be a godsend.  It’s also easy in such situations to be overly-deferential to, and overly-dependent on, your outside lawyers, especially those silver-haired lions who are recognized as experts in their field.  This is a mistake.  First, it’s your job to be sure to challenge your outside counsel on important matters, including briefing, strategy decisions, drafting, etc.  You need to be sure you fully understand and agree with what they are proposing.  The worst thing you can do is just simply assume “they know everything about everything” and just accept whatever they decide or give you.  As an in-house lawyer you have a unique understanding of the business, the industry, the personalities, and the “politics.” Your outside counsel does not.  You need to bring that to bear throughout any representation as your outside lawyers will miss things simply because they don’t know what they don’t know. Second, while it is okay to defer to your outside lawyers during meetings with the business, it is not okay abdicate.  You need to participate in the discussion and you need to take a lead role in how things are laid out for the business leaders.  If all you are doing is sitting like a potted plant, then the logical question for the business to ask is “why do I need that person?”  You need to have a point of view.  Yes, it takes extra work to be prepared like this, but not only is it worth it from a career standpoint, getting heavily involved is also rewarding from a personal satisfaction angle, i.e., the ability to exercise your legal skills as part of a high-caliber team.  The easiest way to ensure this happens is to discuss in advance with your outside lawyers your role during any meeting or teleconference.

9. Read – a lot.  Another thing I have noticed about the most effective in-house lawyers I came across is that they all read – a lot.  And they read a wide variety of things: newspapers, magazines, industry blogs; books, legal publications (including areas of the law they do not necessarily specialize in), or whatever else comes over the transom.  Their reading included points of view that might not always agree with theirs, for example the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Guardian, or The Times.  Reading a wide spectrum of points of view helps you have better and more impactful conversations with many different people.  You may not always agree with them, but you can better understand where they are coming from in their thinking and, potentially, empathize with them.  Empathy is a powerful skill in business.  Being well-read also allows you to be a better “story teller.”  If you can tell a good story, you have the ability to effectively communicate with just about anyone.  This is not about telling 20 or 30 minute “tall tales” to amuse your audience.  It’s about short three-to-five minute narratives that help make your point in a way that is engaging and memorable.  For example, if you can tell the other party a good “story” around why a certain clause is needed in the contract, it can go a long way to getting their acceptance to include just such a provision. The ability to tell stories is gaining acceptance as a critical business skill.  To be an effective in-house lawyer, it’s a skill you need to develop as well.

10. Be yourself (most of the time).  There is an old adage out there that says if you want to truly be successful, you must “be yourself.”  I agree with this to a point.  I suggest that you be yourself – most of the time.  No one other the most insensitive clod is “themselves” 100% of the time.  For example, I grew up in a household where swearing was pretty common and accepted. That said, I am sensitive to the fact that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for a good “#$%^&!” every once in a while.  In fact, they might find it downright awful.   Accordingly, I am not “myself” in all situations – I watch my manners or as some call it, I “self-monitor” my behavior.  There is a great op-ed by Adam Grant in the June 5, 2016 New York Times titled “Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.”  In the article he discusses another author’s attempt to be “totally authentic” 100% of the time.  For example, that person told his in-laws he found their conversations very boring.  You can imagine how that went over.  That author ultimately concluded that “Deceit makes our world go round.  Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”  I don’t know if it’s as dire as all that, but I can vouch for the fact that the most successful in-house lawyers are “situationally aware” and are constantly monitoring the room and themselves, understanding how best to pitch an idea or give criticism, when to make a joke and when to keep quiet, when someone needs a pat on the back or a kick in rear.  I am not saying be a fake.  It is definitely important to “be yourself” generally.  If you’re a laid back person generally you cannot go through your career pretending to be a “Type A” personality.  But you always need to consider your audience and make a decision as to whether being 100% truly authentic is the best way to go at that moment, or maybe 85% authentic good enough.


I know there are a number of other “habits” one could include in the list above.  Actually, some of the things on my list may actually be “traits” rather than “habits” but that’s putting too fine a point on the message here.  The point is: what do you need to do to be effective and successful? If you want to be more than Fred Flintstone clocking in 9-to-5 at the quarry, then these are the habits you can adopt, develop, or enhance that will make your in-house job more than just “a job.”  They can make it a career.  A very successful career at that.

Sterling Miller

July 15, 2016

Follow me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and LinkedIn where I post short articles of interest to in-house counsel daily.  

 (If you find this blog useful, please click “follow” in the top right so you get all new posts automatically, pass it along to colleagues or friends, and “Tweet” it. “Ten Things” is not legal advice or legal opinion.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. You can find this blog and all past posts at www.TenThings.net.  If you have questions or comments, please contact me at either sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net or smiller@hilgersgraben.com).

My first book, “The Evolution of Professional Football,” is available for sale on Amazon and at www.SterlingMillerBooks.com.

[I wanted to take a minute to note the fact that this blog now has over 1,000 “followers,” i.e., readers who have signed up to receive copies of the blog the moment new editions are posted.  I remember thinking 100 followers would be a big deal.  I guess I have to shoot for 2,000 now!  My most sincere thanks to all of you readers who have become followers and who pass along the blog to your friends, and a special thanks to all of you who write to me with questions or ideas.  I really appreciate your interest and for taking time out of your day to send me a note.  A double special thanks to “Ana” who was the 1,000th follower.  I will be sending her a copy of the “Ten Things” book when it is published late this year/early 2017 – more on that to come.]



  1. As an ex-in-house lawyer, I must say you hit the nail on the head! Very well-written. Most of these habits, by the way, would also apply to outside lawyers.



  2. This is stellar advice for in-house lawyers in every career stage. I agree 100% with Ten Things points 8 -10! Looking forward to your forthcoming book.




  3. Dear Sterling. Sorry for the long absence. A great Article as always. You continue to scale great heights my friend. Only addition i can make to your article is my own coinage “REACT” . R stands for Responsiveness, E for Empathy, A for Anticipation, C for Cost and T for truthful. Hope you agree. Have a blessed day. Ram


  4. Thanks for explaining that good lawyers will have a routine to start their day so they’ll be up and running as soon as possible. My husband and I want to find a good attorney to help us get compensation for the storm damage to our home. I’m glad I read your article because now I know what kinds of things I can ask potential attorneys about!


  5. It was interesting when you talked about how effective lawyers not only read a lot, but read materials from a variety of varying sources as well. My brother and his friend are interested in working with an intellectual property lawyer to trademark the video game they’ve been developing together. I’ll pass along this info so they can ask the right questions as they start the process of meeting with potential laweyrs!


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