Ten non-legal books all in-house lawyers should read

First published in April 2020 https://sterlingmiller2014.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/ten-things-ten-non-legal-books-all-in-house-lawyers-should-read/

Sterling Miller

Sterling Miller on 12/08/20

I am going to write about a question I have gotten from several readers, i.e., “what books do you recommend I read if I want to be a successful in-house lawyer?”  I have already written about ten things in-house lawyers should read every day,[1] but I haven’t really taken on the task of recommending books other than sporadically throughout various blog posts (like in my last “Ten Things” post on electronic signatures).  I’ll start by telling you that there is a boatload of legal books you can read, including two I have written (with a third on the way in 2021).  I’ll also tell you that reading legal-related books is okay but if you’re limiting yourself to that genre, then you are really missing out.  Not missing out on legal issues; that’s something you should stay on top of to remain sharp on the law.  Rather, you’re missing out on books that can make you a better overall in-house lawyer, i.e., one that acts and thinks strategically and one that becomes a valued advisor and not just a legal order taker – the legal department equivalent of manning the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.  And, given most of us are still working from home sitting out the COVID-19 virus, you may have a little more time on your hands to read something other than work emails and law firm client alerts.

I decided to make this easy on myself and I am literally looking around my home office at the books on the shelves, staring at me, quieting murmuring “read me again, dummy.”  Which means either I’m am losing my mind sheltering-in-place or my bookcases are haunted.  Not sure which is better.  Regardless, there are a number of books that have helped me become a better in-house lawyer.  I think you would find anyone of them helpful.  This edition of “Ten Things” picks out ten non-legal books that all in-house lawyers should read:

1.  Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin   Perhaps my favorite book on this list.  Abraham Lincoln was an amazing President of the United States – one of the true giants in terms of intellect, capacity for hard work, compassion, concern, and sheer ability to get shit done, including ending the Civil War.  Not only was he a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings, he did so with savvy and humor.  In Team of Rivals, Goodwin writes about how Lincoln went about setting up his cabinet, one comprising a mix of people who were political rivals, glory hogs, super smart, and a few who hated his guts. What was missing?  Sycophants, dullards, and “yes men.”  Indeed, no lips got chapped kissing butt in Abe’s cabinet.   It’s incredible to me that anyone in Lincoln’s position went so far as to build a group of advisors from such divergent viewpoints (and agendas).  What I took away from reading this book was to try to always surround myself with the best people possible, especially those who would argue with me (in a civilized manner) over the best decision, point out when I was missing something, or just tell me they thought I was “wrong.”  As an in-house lawyer, you need to hear and listen to these different opinions and understand that not everything is the way you think it is or should be, and you need to know how to deal with that.  That is how the best decisions get made and that is how you get the best talent to come and work for you – and stick around.

“This, then, is a story of Lincoln’s political genius revealed through his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease, and to learn from mistakes. He possessed an acute understanding of the sources of power inherent in the presidency, an unparalleled ability to keep his governing coalition intact, a tough-minded appreciation of the need to protect his presidential prerogatives, and a masterful sense of timing.”

2.  The Art of War – Sun Tzu.  This short book was written in the 5th century – BC!  And while they may literally be older than dirt, the lessons Sun Tzu sets out about war have everyday application in the confines of any corporation as well as to the issues faced by in-house lawyers be they litigation, negotiation, or other challenges.  The book is broken down into 13 chapters covering topics ranging from “Tactical Dispositions” to “Laying Plans” to “The Use of Intelligence.”  If you cannot see how these lessons can apply to in-house counsel, it’s time to get new glasses!

“Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:
1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.”

Or as I like see it:

“Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:
1) She/He will win who knows when to [litigate] and when not to [litigate].
2) She/He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior [lawyers].
3) She/He will win whose [legal team] is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
4) She/He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the [other side] unprepared.
5) She/He will win who has [legal resource] capacity and is not interfered with by the [CEO/Board].”

3.  Getting to Yes – Roger Fisher.  Perhaps the single best book on how to negotiate ever written.  The authors take you through how to negotiate without giving in and without rancor, something that seems to be in short supply in today’s world.  If you think of business deals as “I win, you lose” you are setting yourself and the company up for failure.  A good business deal means everyone wins something, otherwise, why do the deal?  This book originated out of the Harvard Negotiation Project and lays out things like how to focus on interests (not positions), dealing with a bad-actor negotiator, and inventing options for mutual gain.  Even better, it applies to external and internal negotiations, the latter often being the bane of an in-house lawyer’s existence.

“The most powerful interests are basic human needs. In searching for the basic interests behind a declared position, look particularly for those bedrock concerns that motivate all people. If you can take care of such basic needs, you increase the chance both of reaching agreement and, if an agreement is reached, of the other side’s keeping to it. Basic human needs include: security, economic well-being, a sense of belonging, recognition, and control over one’s life.  As fundamental as they are, basic human needs are easy to overlook. In many negotiations, we tend to think that the only interest involved is money. Yet even in a negotiation over a monetary figure, such as the amount of alimony to be specified in a separation agreement, much more can be involved.”

4.  The Elements of Style – Strunk & White.  I remember one of the early papers I wrote for my first-year college English class.  The professor wrote, “I love the story and the detail. But your spelling and grammar suck.”  Ouch.  I had always thought I was an excellent writer but, when I really thought about it, I was not.  I had great ideas but the follow-through was bad because I was weak on the fundamentals of writing.  I asked my professor what would help me and he gave me a copy of The Elements of Style.  Damn. What a great book.  Thank you, Prof. Holder!  I still have it, though it is so worn out that it qualifies as tissue paper.  This book will teach you just about everything you need in terms of writing high quality, engaging, and grammatically correct prose.  As I have written in this blog, knowing how to write as an in-house lawyer is a skill, just like presenting legal issues to executives.  Having no spelling errors, proper grammar, writing in the active voice, and using punctuation properly are near the top of the list on how to succeed at both.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

5.  7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey.  I used this book as the inspiration for my blog post titled “Ten Habits of Highly Effective In-House Lawyers.”  I also use the lessons I learned in this book every day.  From “Begin with the End in Mind” to “Put First Things First” to the value of synergy in via a group, these simple – yet all too true lessons – can be the bedrock of making you an effective in-house lawyer.

“It is one thing to make a mistake, and quite another thing not to admit it. People will forgive mistakes, because mistakes are usually of the mind, mistakes of judgment. But people will not easily forgive the mistakes of the heart, the ill intention, the bad motives, the prideful justifying cover-up of the first mistake.”

6.  How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie.  Written in 1936, this is the grandfather of all self-help books.  It is probably also the best.  Why?  Because it works! It may seem dated or even corny, but the lessons set out by Carnegie resonate just as strongly and effectively today as they did 84 years ago.  Here is what it covers: how to handle people, how to make people like you, how to win people over to your way of thinking, how to be a leader, how to improve your home life.  Is there anything on that list that isn’t important in today’s world?  Nope.  Want help maneuvering in the hallways of any corporation? The book is a classic for a reason.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

7.  Good to Great  Jim Collins.  The CEO of Travelocity gave this book out to her direct reports as a Christmas gift one year.  At first, I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t get a nice bottle of wine or champagne, but then I started reading this book and I realized almost instantly why she wanted us to read it.  The book tries to dissect why some companies move from good to great and others flail and fail.  It does so by distilling down the core principles that make companies great.  If you have ever wanted to contribute to a business discussion on the long term strategy of the company you work for, this book will help you put things into perspective as you look for the seeds of greatness in the things your company does (or doesn’t do) every day.  My favorites are the “Hedgehog Concept,” the “Flywheel,” and a “Culture of Discipline.”  This is probably the only management book you would ever need to own.[2]

 “Letting the wrong people hang around is unfair to all the right people, as they inevitably find themselves compensating for the inadequacies of the wrong people. Worse, it can drive away the best people. Strong performers are intrinsically motivated by performance, and when they see their efforts impeded by carrying extra weight, they eventually become frustrated.”

8.  Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things Done – Larry Bossidy, et. al.  Getting stuff done may be the hardest task in-house lawyers face.  There is just so much going on, with so many distractions and demands for attention.  We tend to cope using things like “to do” lists, ticking off tasks to get that jolt of accomplishment over the smallest accomplishment – like a rat smacking down on the lever to get a pellet.  It feels good for a moment and then we realize we’re still stuck in the maze.  This book helps you clear the clutter and get to real results regardless of whether you run a massive legal department or it’s just you by yourself.  There are too many lessons I learned from this book to list but here are two of one of my favorites:

“The leader must be in charge of getting things done by running the three core processes—picking other leaders, setting the strategic direction, and conducting operations.”

“Identifying goals requires a level of savvy and expertise to achieve the right balance. That, in turn, requires the realism and the knowledge of the business and the people that constitute the first two of our seven essential behaviors. Choosing the wrong goals can be disastrous. All too often the wrong goals are set because the leader isn’t realistic about the ability of the people to achieve them. Articulating the right goals is the first step. The people in the organization then have to execute and that means setting priorities and benchmarks.”

9.  Learning to Think Strategically – Julia Sloan.  As I wrote at the end of 2019, one of the most common questions I get asked by in-house lawyers is “how do I become a ‘strategic’ in-house lawyer?”  If this is something on your mind (and it should be), this is a book you need to read. Sloan writes about the development of strategic thinking, the difference between strategic thinking and planning, and the key attributes of strategic thinking which include “broad perspective,” “imagination,” and “desire to win.”  If becoming a strategic in-house lawyer/executive is on your list, this is the place to start learning how to do it.

“Talk to many people and read everything, and insist that others ask you questions. We must think about what we don’t know. I think that I talk to so many different people and bring our different ideas and opinions together—and that’s very good. Sometimes maybe it looks like we spend a lot of time talking about things that are not related to economics or technology, but everything is connected when you’re trying to put together a big puzzle—so why not? It’s the most helpful thing.”

10.  Managing Up and Across – Karen Dillon & Amy Gallo.  This is one of many in the Harvard Business Review book series “The HBR Guide to…[fill in your topic]” found in airport bookstores all over the world.  They are short, easy to read and jam-packed with useful information, this one in particular.  No matter where you sit in the legal department, there is someone above you, and around you, that you need to manage, starting with your boss but also your clients and potentially the board of directors.  This book is a simple and effective guide for how to do that, including how to deal with challenging/incompetent bosses, navigating office politics, and advancing your agenda. There are other books out there on the topic, but this one is worth keeping in your desk drawer for easy access!

“You’re caught in a difficult dilemma, one that can feel personally threatening.  The boss is not only a potential source of great help, in both your job and your career, but also the one who evaluates your performance. To get help from her as a developer, particularly with your personal development, you must reveal your shortcomings. But if you do so, she in her role as evaluator may interpret your weaknesses as serious faults.  Many managers handle this dilemma by striving to appear capable and in control even when they’re not.  They see their boss more as threat than ally and lose the potential benefits of her help.”

“What can you do? Don’t presume your boss is always one or the other, judge or coach.  Instead, think his dual role as extremes between which he moves back and forth depending on the situation.  As first, in small ways that aren’t risky, test his willingness to provide support.  That way, you can see when, where, and how he is likely to focus on development rather than evaluation.  Learn his feelings about what’s important in management – such as careful planning, decisiveness, building consensus – and make sure you develop and display those qualities.”


So, there you have it.  My list of ten non-legal books all in-house lawyers should read and why.  Are there more than ten?  Of course!  I see at least five more on my haunted bookshelves I could name if this blog were called “Fifteen Things You Need to Know…”  I almost included The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli because the book is way more than what most people think it is.  So, if you need one more for your list, check it out (or re-read it now that you’re out of college – it will make way more sense).  And, it would be great if you’d share any non-legal books you think are essential for in-house lawyers with other readers.  Just post on LinkedIn.  Finally, I see that I utterly and completely failed to “keep it short.”  Sorry about that.   Stay well and stay home as much as possible (at least for a little while longer). 

Sterling Miller

April 30, 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 StrategiesThe Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

Follow/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] See, Ten Things: Ten Things In-House Lawyers Should Read Every Day.

[2] It’s a companion to another earlier published Collins book, Built to Last, that focuses on what habits make great companies sustainable over the long haul using data gathering from surveys completed by over 1,000 CEOs.

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