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Ah, summer! Let’s hit the beaches, swim in the surf, pour on the tanning oil, and trade our briefcases for beach bags. Summer also opens clogged calendars, allowing busy general counsel time to reflect, think, and read. Here, then, is this summer’s reading list to help corporate counsel work better, faster, and smarter. First, though, a reality check: A general counsel’s role is more than a legal one. General counsel are often a company’s voice, and to help a company find its voice, read Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide, the collaborative effort of Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky. Their advice: Eschew the desire to sound like the smartest one in the room, avoid 10 minutes of pointless throat-clearing, and stop using 50-cent words to make 5-cent points. Instead, be authentic. Be yourself. Be liberated. Dump the general; focus on the concrete. Lose the jargon that hides the truth, and simply tell it. Embrace a point of view, and stick with it. Fugere and company tell how “bull” leads to disaster, from NASA lingo surrounding the Challenger disaster to how Orwellian pronouncements from Enron Corp. led, in part, to its financial collapse. Read this book, and communication liberation is within your reach. Don Watson’s Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language tackles the bane of many general counsel: writing the corporate mission statement. Watson also notes how many in management positions are enamored of repeatedly saying, “We are committed” to greater transparency, quality service, complete disclosure, ad nauseam. Describing commitment as the verbal equivalent of a blank stare, he suggests managers just say this: “We will do the right thing; we will provide information; we will establish . . .” He has a point; commitment is a distant cousin of doing. Look at it this way: Would you rather have someone commit to give you $500 or actually have that person hand it over? Watson skewers PowerPoint, saying it allows speakers to pretend they are giving a real speech and allows audiences to pretend they are listening. And he blitzes platitudes, decrying their dehumanizing effects. Instead of telling employees how much the company values their contributions and appreciates their commitment — can’t seem to escape that word in corporate America, eh? — try saying it differently: “What would we do without you?” That statement is direct, heartfelt, and human. It also illustrates the real power behind a rhetorical question. NO MORE BLAH, BLAH Yet another goal should be to keep an employee from thinking “blah, blah, blah” as he or she listens to a C-level exec. A way to do this, as my supervisor at the National Labor Relations Board once admonished me after rejecting what I believed to be a brilliant trial brief, is to write like the Dick and Jane series of books. You remember, right? “This is Spot. Spot is a dog. See Spot run.” Simply put, it’s OK to be simple. A GC’s skill set also goes beyond communication and segues into persuasion. GCs aren’t just chief legal officers; they’re also the persuaders in chief, inside and outside the company. Start with The Wise Advisor: What Every Professional Should Know About Consulting and Counseling, from former Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law Dean Jeswald Salacuse. He crams a lot into 120 pages, and I try to reread this book at least once a year. Here are his mantras: Know your client; help or at least do no harm; agree on your roles; never give a solo performance; make the process clear and constructive; keep your advice pure; and agree on the end at the beginning. Also, Clients for Life (there are two books in the series by Jagdish Sheth and Andrew Sobel) teaches lawyers how to use empathy to connect with clients and meet their needs. Look to The 5 Paths to Persuasion: The Art of Selling Your Message by Robert Miller, Gary Williams, and Alden Hayashi to figure out the best way to communicate with C-level executives. Are your company’s C-level execs charismatic (think Jack Welch), thinkers (imagine Bill Gates), skeptics (Ted Turner, front and center), followers (yes, you, Carly Fiorina), or controllers (why isn’t Ross Perot making this list a surprise?)? Learn how to identify, communicate with, and persuade each. LESS BACKSLAPPING Know your boss, but also take some time to know yourself. Here are two nominees for books that help general counsel do just that, giving them the greatest return for the time invested. The first is the latest from Yahoo! executive Tim Sanders, The Likeability Factor: How to Boost Your L-Factor and Achieve Your Life’s Dreams. Here are Sanders’ big ideas: Trash the outdated belief that likability equates with backslapping; understand that likability is about authenticity; benefit from the human trait that those who are the most likable will, like the meek, inherit, if not the earth, then their fair share. He provides a quick and entertaining guide on increasing a person’s likability quotient. The other nominee is Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the follow-up to Malcolm Gladwell’s sonic boom-busting Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Gladwell’s big idea: Snap decisions relying upon intuition are more accurate than those relying upon exhaustive study. But beware: Snap decisions can be engineered. Look at Gladwell’s section on how patients make decisions about which doctors to sue. Bad doctors whom patients regard as empathetic and caring get sued less often than excellent doctors viewed as robotic and uncaring. That is a perfect example of how little things make a big difference. Gladwell’s book carved a couple of new neural pathways for me. And, finally, fiction is often like life, and life is often like fiction. The following two books prove the point. Kurt Eichenwald’s incisive study of Enron, Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story, is compelling and cinematic in its exploration of what went wrong. The book is a mosaic, with each chapter consisting of dozens of short vignettes, anecdotes, and reconstructed conversations. This novelistic technique is powerful. Eichenwald’s conclusion? Enron was more about bad business than bad ethics. And for a novel that is like life, read William Lashner’s Falls the Shadow, which is the latest in a series involving ethically challenged lawyer Victor Carl. Carl is the type of lawyer who says pro bono is Latin for “no cable.” All lawyers should read the noir genre. It reminds us that there’s a story on the surface, a story beneath the surface, and people never change — they only reveal themselves. Carl’s latest adventure is defending a morally corrupt man accused of killing his wife. At one point he muses: I don’t have to believe in my client; I just have to believe in the legal tender he’s tendering. A lawyer is really nothing more than a mechanic. Bring in your life, with all its troubles, and I’ll open the hood, poke around, see if any of the legal tricks at my disposal can fix the problem. It isn’t personal. I don’t make judgments about the quality of the car. I just roll up my sleeves. It reminds me of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s comment that lawyers are a “conscience for hire.” And because I can’t write anything better than Lashner, I’ll end by just wishing all a nice summer and good reading. Michael P. Maslanka is managing partner of the Dallas office of Ford & Harrison. His e-mail address is [email protected]. This article originally appeared in Texas Lawyer, an ALM publication.

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