Ten Things: Rules All In-House Counsel Should Live By

I was recently interviewed by Mel Scott for her awesome the “Counsel” podcast.[1]  I had a lot of fun talking with her and we chatted a good bit offline before she hit “record.”  Part of that discussion was about how the Ten Things blog got started.  If you bought the first Ten Things book, you know the story from the introduction section.  If you haven’t gotten around to shelling out your hard-earned dough (or better yet, expensing it to the company), the short story is that I was speaking at a legal event in late 2014 and afterward some young in-house lawyers came up to me and started asking me questions about things they should be doing to advance their careers.  Never being one to shy away from handing out some pearls of wisdom, I mentioned several things that came to mind.  All of which they proceeded to write down.  Hmmm, I thought.  If anyone should be writing this stuff down, it should be me!  And that, my friends, is how it all started.  What I don’t talk as much about is that many of the posts come from presentations I made to my various in-house teams, at off-sites, team meetings, small groups, etc.  If there was a projector or a whiteboard, it was time to break things down!

Last week I was cleaning out a bunch of old files on my computer (because that’s how I roll).  I had the television on in the background and one of my favorite movies was playing, Zombieland.  If you have never seen it, please correct that oversight at your first opportunity.  If you have seen it, you know that Jesse Eisenberg’s character, “Columbus,” has a list of rules that he relies on to survive the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Zombieland.  The rules are all tried and true common sense things that will help keep you safe.  Just as Columbus was discussing the merits of “cardio” and the “double-tap,” I came across a document in my files from 2012 – my rules for surviving as an in-house lawyer.  Wow!  Coincidence? Fate? Divine inspiration? I’m not sure.  But, it doesn’t matter – I had found my next blog post!  I remember writing these “Rules” down one night and presenting them to my team at an off-site and looking through them brought back a lot of great memories of all of those fantastic people who I miss every day (some of whom even read this blog on occasion).  Moreover, as I read through the rules I realized a) they are still 100% valid, b) you can see a lot of what became Ten Things posts in these rules, and c) if there is a zombie attack, these are pretty worthless (except maybe for “eat lunch” – if you’re a zombie).

Regardless, this edition of Ten Things will be a little different.  I am simply going to republish my rules as written.  No embellishment, no snarky commentary, no cut off at “10.”  Just a list of rules all in-house counsel can take to heart to survive the apocalyptic wasteland that is the Covid-ridden, murder-hornet-ed, wildfired, election year hell we call 2020.  Ready? Here we go: 


1.  There is enough work to go 24/7/365 – but you don’t have to!

2.  You do not need to respond to every email immediately – and some, not at all. Be kind with the “cc’s”

3.  Say it and write it as simply as possible – get to the bottom line asap.

4.  It is alright to say “I don’t know” – don’t bluff your client.

5.  Learn to say “not now.” Control your day as best you can.

6.  Smile. Have a sense of humor.

7.  Recognize true emergencies and deal with them as needed.

8.  “To Do” lists are fine, but realize that your priorities will change hourly. Focus on what’s important.

9.  Listen – make sure you understand what they are asking you to do and don’t be afraid to ask questions (but pick your spots in meetings)

10.  Learn the business.

11.  Volunteer. Get out of your comfort zone.

12.  Deliver bad news and good news – fairly and honestly. Keep an even keel.

13.  It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Don’t be a jerk.

14.  Don’t be afraid to be wrong – just use good judgment to get there.

15.  Eat lunch.  Everyone needs a break.

16.  Don’t work on vacation unless there is an emergency or to browse emails (one- hour a day limit).

17.  Sometimes you have to use outside counsel – just be smart about it and tell them how much time you want them to spend on your project.

18.  Market the department – every day.

19.  Don’t let the boss be surprised.

20.  Don’t over-promise; let the client decide priorities. Legal doesn’t run the business.

21.  Show your math. The business runs on numbers (and Excel).

22.  Be nice.

23.  Bring a solution, not just the problem.

24.  Pick up the phone. Not everything has to be an email.

25.  Everyone needs help now and then – don’t be too proud to ask.

The Golden Rule: There’s never enough money, time, or people and that’s not going to change.  Learn to live with it.


That’s it.  My rules for surviving as an in-house lawyer circa 2012 – but still valid today.  It was fun finding them and reading back through them.  I’d be interested in hearing about your own “rules” – so, please send those along as a comment, response on LinkedIn or Twitter, etc.  I certainly have no monopoly on this topic and I know a lot of you have your own take on how to survive the in-house world.  And, as you can see, there’s nothing magical here, just a lot of common sense learned over many years.  Sometimes the easy way, but usually the hard way.  That’s all for now.  I gotta get to the TV room – Zombieland II is on!

Sterling Miller

September 16, 2020

Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2 is out.  It’s my second book based on this blog series.  As the ABA says, “All in-house lawyers need to own this book!”  Click here to buy it.


I have three published three other books: Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies, The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and 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, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net.

[1] If you missed it, you can listen to Part 1 here and Part 2 here.



  1. Thanks for these golden rules. Very comprehensive, sensible, and important to remember in the heat of battle or while on a hot assignment. Thanks!


  2. Great read, as all the other Ten Things!
    I’d suggest another rule:
    Make sure you’ve got all the relevant information: #1 The individual client doesn’t always tell everything he/she knows, and #2 often additional information is hidden in other departments which your client doesn’t even know about.


  3. Thank you for the post. I certainly have to read these over and over again for them to sink. Reading your posts all the way from Nigeria. Well done!


  4. Good list even for those of us who have moved from the legal field to risk management! Wish we could have worked together when I was a paralegal at some of the firms in DFW! Love Zombieland and everything is better when your sense of humor remains intact! Thanks for the continuous pearls of wisdom!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s