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Unusual Lessons For Lawyers From Steve Jobs

When he’s used as an example, the discussion usually revolves around one of his more prominent characteristics.  Genuine passion, great communication and presentation skills, and a willingness to take big risks are almost always part of the conversation.

However, while each of these traits are certainly worth studying – and there’s been a ton of great stuff written about each – there are other less prominent, though equally instructive aspects of his personality that are interesting to examine.

1.  Pursue Interests Outside Your Specialty; Broaden Your Horizons

In talking about Bill Gates, Jobs once famously said:

“I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

The drug reference aside (I’ll assume that was just … the 70s? …), the practical implication is pretty clear.   The broader base of education and life experience you have to draw from, the more potential you have to envision creative solutions. Coding 24/7 in a dark room can help make you a crack developer, just like being able to quote the UCC or Delaware’s General Corporation Law can show you have a certain competence level as a business lawyer – but neither contribute very much to overall professional development.

If you spot an interesting author giving a talk at a local bookstore, a cool lecture at a local university, an interesting webinar (that isn’t CLE accredited or otherwise related to some new Federal Rule of Civil Procedure), or a class at the local community college that sounds intriguing – strongly consider participating.  It’s not only fun and healthy, but there’s a good chance it is directly contributing to making you a better professional. A professional that’s more valuable to your firm, more helpful to your clients, and more able to provide a new or fresh perspective from which to approach daily issues.

Case in point:  Do you dig all those cool fonts you use when you’re typing up documents? Any idea how those fonts came to be?

Those fonts are there because Jobs took a calligraphy class, where he learned about different typefaces, changing the spaces between letters, and so forth. When the first Mac came out in 1984, Jobs remembered his class and thought it would be cool for those fonts to be transitioned into the computer world.  Had he not taken that class, who knows exactly when we’d have font choices in our applications.

The more you know, the more you’ve experienced, the more creative assets you have to draw from.

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2.  Adopt Some Rebel Spirit

The economy is tough, clients are increasingly demanding, and technology is advancing at a rapid pace.  There are plenty of lawyers who find these things disappointing, discouraging, or even depressing.

And then there are the rebels. The rebels see this as an incredibly exciting time for the legal profession. Leaders are embracing these changes and not only succeeding personally, but are making real contributions toward changing the way all lawyers practice.

The continued release of powerful, inexpensive technology is quickly democratizing the practice of law. These tools, coupled with the changing needs of clients, are helping usher in everything from the emergence of lawyers in social media to further experimentation with alternative fee structures.  At the same time, the profession itself is figuring out how to operate with these new tools, and is genuinely listening to those willing to take a position and speak up.

Jobs said: “It’s better to be a pirate than to join the Navy.”

It can be an exciting time to be a practicing lawyer, especially lawyers at small to mid-size firms where it’s possible to act fast, quickly pivot when necessary, and maintain an entrepreneurial spirit.

There are models for inspiration all over the internet, yet there is still plenty of room for more innovators and forward-thinkers.  It’s still early in the game.

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3. Remember That The Customer Is Not Always Right.

This is a tricky one, because even though Apple is known in part for its customer-friendly service, product design and development are entirely different creatures.

When your client calls or walks into your office and blurts out a request (“I want to sue my neighbor” or “I need an asset purchase agreement”) the best lawyers will nod, listen, and then start asking questions, trying to understand exactly what that client really needs. It might be what they’ve asked for, but it might be something completely and entirely different.

Part of the job of the professional – whether lawyer or product designer – is to understand the real problem, and to develop the best solution for that problem. To that end, the professionals – not the customers – are often in the best position to deliver an appropriate solution. Jobs says:

“It’s hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show them.”

Henry Ford put it more starkly:
“If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.”

The “customer is always right” is certainly not a phrase best applied to the attorney-client relationship. Having the willingness to invest the time to carefully listen to a problem, and then having the confidence and competence to deliver firm direction and guidance – especially when it isn’t exactly what the client may have thought she needed – is a terrific quality.

These qualities of Jobs, though trumpeted less than some of the others, are definitely among those worth considering when thinking about how different approaches and mindsets can directly influence productivity and success.