The New Normal

10 Ways for Lawyers to Find Their ‘Inner Steve Jobs’

Posted Nov 8, 2011 3:13 PM CST
By Paul Lippe

Paul Lippe

The weather had me stuck inside airports last week, so I read the new Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs.

It is certainly a great book about a fascinating life, and for a boomer like me, a bit of a jarring experience to encounter a full-on biography of a near contemporary. Much has already been written about Jobs and the book, but since he is perhaps the exemplar of the New Normal, I thought it might be useful to summarize some thoughts on what we as lawyers might want to draw from his life. For those who don’t want to work through the whole book, there’s an excellent article in Time that covers the major points.

1) Innovation is possible. Jobs’ compelling strength was his insistence on the possibility of innovation, whether it was stronger glass for the face of the iPhone, a touchscreen that delayed the project for six months, or licensing music from the record companies for iTunes even after they had stonewalled other digital services—all situations where “everybody knew” what he wanted was impossible. When presented with an idea outside their experience, lawyers all-too-often say “this is impossible,” which shuts down the discussion and is often wrong. A general counsel recently described to me her legal team’s reaction to an idea about streamlining their work. The team complained the effort is “too big,” “too hard,” and, finally pleaded, “just let us do our jobs.”

2) Innovation is not a theory. It takes execution. Most of the compelling innovation Jobs brought to market took longer than expected and encountered multiple setbacks along the way. I can’t tell you how many times I hear lawyers say “we tried that once, and it didn’t work.” Anything innovative requires persistence, experimentation, course correction, and yes, tolerance for failure. Innovation requires character on the part of the innovator and leadership on the part of the organization to support that persistence. I met Ralph Baxter from Orrick seven years ago when he started his Global Operations Center in Wheeling, W.Va., and I noted that Pillsbury announced a few weeks ago that they were following suit in Nashville, Tenn., even after most firms had sneered at Orrick’s initiative at the outset.

3) Great profits follow great products and services. Although Apple is now the most valuable company in the world, Isaacson reports that Jobs said he always focused on the products, and assumed the revenues and profits would follow. At a conference last week discussing innovative approaches to knowledge management, the first question from many folks was not “how can we do that to deliver better value to clients?” but “why would we do that if we’re not going to make more money?”

4) A unified vision is better than a committee. Jobs’ other great strength was his willingness to drive his vision and insist that everyone around him adhere to it. He was occasionally wrong, and frequently obnoxious, but a remarkable percentage of the time he was right. He didn’t seek permission from others, hire consultants or try to drive consensus, so his decision-making was usually quick and generally had accountability. How often does law firm management (except for firms like Bartlit Beck that are led by a founding partner) adhere to a clear vision? A unified vision also allowed Jobs to manage risk effectively because he understood what was at stake and how to improve his chances. So when he said choosing touchscreen technology over the stylus was “bet the company,” it wasn’t a euphemism to mean he was insensitive to cost, it was an accurate description of the consequences of his choice and a call to arms for his team to deliver.

5) It pays to be fully invested in your job. One thing you couldn’t question about Steve Jobs was his commitment to his company and his role. He was “all-in.” That level of commitment had lots of downside for Apple employees and his family, but overall made him much more effective at his job and allowed him to fully realize his potential. Many lawyers, particularly some young lawyers, view their job as a way station to something else. It shows, and limits what they or their clients will ever get out of the experience.

6) The point of corporate governance is to drive stockholder value; it’s not an end in itself. There is no doubt that Jobs’ behavior around the option dating when he brought new executives into Apple in 1997 after the NeXT acquisition was problematic. And according to Issacson, he generally didn’t want a board that would challenge him. (Although he did apparently use the board in the most useful way—to kick around ideas and strategies that he was considering.) Yet despite what folks like Institutional Shareholder Services and the proponents of Sarbanes-Oxley claim, there’s little evidence that more corporate governance means better run companies, and the most successful companies of the last decade—Apple and Google—don’t follow many corporate governance norms. Given a choice between an activist board and a successful stock, it’s pretty clear what investors will choose.

7) Simplicity is better. There’s a great story I remember from the time about the negotiations between NeXT and IBM about IBM’s licensing NeXT’s operating system (a redolent situation for Jobs because of the history between Microsoft, IBM and Apple). After NeXT received a 100-plus-page contract from IBM, Jobs slammed it on the table and said: “Come back with a two-to-three-page contract … you don’t get it.” As FMC Technologies general counsel Jeff Carr wrote in a New Normal column comment recently, “I yearn for … simplification.” There’s no evidence that lawyers’ inclination toward complexity does anything to reduce risk. Jobs was always trying to simplify products by reducing features, simplify the company by eliminating products, and simplify the user’s experience. How many lawyers have ever asked a client to read a contract, or what they do with the contract once it’s done? How many eschew adding that extra environmental rep to the software company M&A agreement, or the extra risk factor to the prospectus?

8) The boundary between disciplines is where the richness is. Isaacson’s other main thesis was that although Jobs had no training as an engineer; his ability to operate at the boundary of the humanities and technology was his great strength. Lawyers have traditionally operated at the boundary of law and clients’ areas of interest; the best ones don’t refer to “widgets,” but develop a deep understanding about a client’s world that allows them to operate in that cross-disciplinary space.

9) It’s hard to get organizations or people to work together. Jobs eschewed organizational or functional divisions. That meant he kept a lot of power in his hands, and could certainly be imperious. But it also meant he circumvented the widely chronicled “innovator’s dilemma” that hamstrings most large organizations and prevents them from effectively using their scale or responding to change. Sony, once among Jobs’ most admired companies, bought CBS Records so they could link consumer devices and music, but Apple did a better job getting music in their system than Sony did. How many large law firms, with 20 practice groups, work effectively across those practice groups for the benefit of clients? When Jobs was sick with cancer, he had to summon all the different specialists from Stanford to his house to insist on a coordinated course of treatment because they were each optimizing for their discrete part of the problem, but none were looking at the patient as a whole. How many lawyers within a firm, or across firms, coordinate their work on behalf of a client?

10) “Don’t be trapped by dogma.” This was Jobs’ credo, as presented in his now iconic 2005 Stanford Commencement address. As he put it in an interview I heard last week, “once you realize that everything around you is just stuff that got set up by people who are no smarter than you are, it’s very liberating.”

At a challenging time for America and the world, we lawyers need to move past dogma to find our inner Steve Jobs.


Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions.

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