While waiting for, or after reading, Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Elon Musk, law and pre-law students (and lawyers) might find much of interest in Isaacson’s best-selling 2011 authorized biography of Apple’s Steve Jobs.
As the book’s introduction notes, Jobs’ “passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.”
Although Isaacson’s account, which was published less than three weeks after Jobs’ death, doesn’t prominently feature lawyers (either for Jobs personally, or for Apple, NeXT, or Pixar), Jobs’ creations, companies, and conduct highlight concepts and questions of continuing concern to professionals.
● Does one only focus on “the visible pieces”?
Jobs recalled that in his childhood his father emphasized, at a workbench in their garage, the importance of “the look of the parts you couldn’t see,” like the reverse sides of fences and cabinets. In 1976, “Jobs applied that to the layout of the circuit board inside the Apple II. He rejected the initial design because the lines were not straight enough.”
A few years later, he similarly ordered the redesign of the circuit board for the Macintosh, bcause the memory chips were too close together. Jobs would tell an interviewer, “For [a true designer] to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through” the product. In fact, though few consumers would ever see it, he had the signatures of the Macintosh’s designers engraved inside each of those computers.
That painstaking professionalism, and pride in having met the elevated professional standards one subscribes to, might remind some of a reference, at the conclusion of Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2009 speech at the Pepperdine University School of Law, to:
“. . . medieval stone masons, the ones who built the actual cathedrals rather than the figurative ones. They would work meticulously for months, for years on the gargoyles that were at the very top of the cathedral even though the product of their efforts would never even be seen from the ground below.
“Now so too with our advocates of today and advocates throughout the moot court competition. They meticulously prepared answers to dozens, hundreds of questions, knowing all the time that almost all of them would never be asked by the judges.
“Now the medieval stone masons said they did what they did because they were carving for the eye of God and not man. A higher purpose infused and inspired their craft. I think the advocate in court also needs to infuse his or her long and lonely preparation with a higher purpose. And that higher purpose, I would submit, is the recognition of the vital role the advocate plays in vindicating the Rule of Law.”
● How can counsel for a company, or for an individual executive, resist succumbing to a client’s (or adversary’s) charm and charisma, particularly when that individual’s statements, proposals, and actions seem to—or, undeniably—contradict facts, and/or violate laws or regulations?
● To what degree is counsel professionally bound to advise a client not to employ such techniques on individuals inside the company, or outside the company?
● To what degree is counsel ethically compelled to attempt to correct the effects of such reality-warping?
Jobs’ charisma, compared by an associate at Pixar to that of “mesmerizing. . . preachers,” created what his associates came to call a “reality distortion field.”
One said, “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.” Another recalled that the staff “would often discuss potential techniques for grounding it, but after a while most of us gave up, accepting it as a force of nature.” According to a third, at Pixar board meetings, “we developed signals—nose scratching or ear tugs—for when someone had been caught up in Steve’s distortion field and he needed to be tugged back to reality.”
Among the biography’s most memorable anecdotes is that of a top coder who, fearing that, when he revealed his decision to leave Apple, Jobs would somehow convince him to stay, told colleagues of his plan to “’just walk into Steve’s office, pull down my pants, and urinate on his desk. What could he say to that?’’”
However, this plan leaked (so to speak), and the coder “was surprised to find Jobs smiling broadly when he walked in. ‘Are you gonna do it? Are you really gonna do it?’ Jobs asked.”
The coder “looked at him. ‘Do I have to? I’ll do it if I have to.’ Jobs gave him a look, and [he] decided it wasn’t necessary. So he resigned less dramatically and walked out on good terms.”
Jobs’ Jedi mind trick certainly inspired his teams to design and develop products and features, and to meet deadlines, that they otherwise might not have.
However, it extended to situations in which, as Apple’s lead designer noted, “’There can be something he knows absolutely nothing about, and because of his crazy style and utter conviction, he can convince people that he knows what he’s talking about.’”
After discussing Apple’s backdating in 2001 of certain stock options–which led to no legal repercussions for Jobs, but to the resignation of a director who had served as the company’s chief financial officer; to the company counsel’s paying a $2.2 million fine in a settlement in which she neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing; and to the company’s settlement, for $14 million, of a shareholder lawsuit—Isaacson concludes that, “Contemptuous of rules and regulations, [Jobs] created a climate that made it hard for someone like [Apple’s counsel] to buck his wishes.”
● What is counsel’s role in attempting to stop, and/or penalize, troublesome and/or illegal behavior, and to help restore a more appropriate “tone at the top” of the company?
Jobs’ rejection of “rules and regulations” included, according to the biography, “not putting a license plate on his car and parking it in handicapped spaces,” and “sometimes straddling two slots” in the parking lot.
In the early 1980s, while stopped for speeding (at “just over 100 miles per hour”), Jobs actually honked at the officer writing him a ticket, and informed him, “I’m in a hurry.” After finally receiving the ticket, with a warning that he would be jailed if caught driving more than 55 miles per hour, Jobs waited until the policeman departed “and accelerated to 100.” The colleague who was his passenger told Isaacson that Jobs “absolutely believed that the normal rules didn’t apply to him.”
Though legendarily insistent on the proprietary nature of Apple’s “closed” system of software and devices, on at least one occasion, Jobs simply refused to listen to the “rules” of using the intellectual property of others. After including, without permission, a two-second clip from the vintage animated series, The Jetsons, in the public presentation of the iMac in 1998, Jobs faced an objection by a subordinate. “’Keep it in,’ Jobs barked at him. The assistant explained that there were rules against that. ‘I don’t care,’ Jobs said, “We’re using it.’”
● How realistic, and sustainable, is it to demand that colleagues or associates “give 110%,” especially if they come to believe that they are being subjected to “fake deadlines,” or that their first submissions will simply and summarily be rejected?
John Sculley, a senior Pepsi executive brought in by Jobs in 1983 to be Apple’s CEO (with the famous challenge: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?”) but ousted ten years later, said that he and Jobs “would go to the Mac building at eleven at night. . . . and they would bring him code to show. In some cases he wouldn’t even look at it. He would just take it and throw it back at them. I’d say, ‘How can you turn it down?’ And he would say, ‘I know they can do better.’”
Which almost certainly reminded Isaacson of an “oft-told tale” repeated in his own 1992 biography of Henry Kissinger, concerning a report that Kissinger’s assistant and speechwriter Winston Lord (later to become Ambassador to China, and then Assistant Secretary of State) “had worked on for days. After giving it to Kissinger, he got it back with the notation, ‘Is this the best you can do?’ Lord rewrote and polished and finally resubmitted it; back it came with the same curt question. After redrafting it one more time—and once again getting the same question from Kissinger—Lord snapped, ‘Damn it, yes, it’s the best I can do.’ To which Kissinger replied, ‘Fine, then I guess I’ll read it this time.’”
● How is the role of corporate counsel different when a board of directors is dominated by the company’s chief executive officer?
In 1997, shortly after returning to Apple but before formally committing to be its CEO, Jobs extracted from the board a quick repricing of the company’s stock options (by arguing that it would help the company retain valued employees); then, he threatened to quit unless every one of the directors (except one, although he ultimately agreed to retain two) resigned from the board.
After inviting Arthur Levitt, a former head of the SEC, to join the board, Jobs read a speech in which Levitt had advocated for active and independent boards. Jobs then retracted the offer.
“Levitt said Jobs told him, ’Frankly, I think some of the issues you raised, while appropriate for some companies, really don’t apply to Apple’s culture. Levitt later wrote, ‘I was floored. . . It’s plain to me that Apple’s board is not designed to act independently of the CEO.’”
● When, and to what degree, are executives legally required to disclose serious health concerns to the board?
● When, and to what degree, are boards legally required to disclose such concerns to shareholders?
Much of the last quarter of the book discusses the effects of the cancer that was detected in 2003 and that led to Jobs’ death eight years later. Initially reluctant to submit to conventional methods of medical treatment, Jobs did not fully inform the entire board (much less Apple’s shareholders) as his medical situation worsened, and he and the company issued misleading statements about his health.
Board member, and former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore insisted to Isaacson, “The press wanted us to blurt out more personal details. . . It was really up to Steve to go beyond what the law requires, but he was adamant that he didn’t want his privacy invaded. His wishes should be respected. . . . We hired outside counsel to do a review of what the law required and what the best practices were, and we handled it all by the book. I sound defensive, but the criticism really pissed me off.”
In an echo of Jobs’ insistence that “he wanted all departments at [Apple] to work together in parallel. The phrases he used were ‘deep collaboration’ and ‘concurrent engineering,’” at Stanford University’s medical center, the head of the transplant institute “did what no one at Stanford had fully done: take charge of all aspects of the medical care [and] coordinate the [liver] transplant recovery, cancer tests, pain treatments, nutrition, rehabilitation, and nursing.”
In one of his book’s most felicitous sentences, Isaacson observes that Laurene Jobs “weighed in quietly on business issues, firmly on family concerns, and fiercely on medical matters” regarding her husband. She ultimately “asked the various Stanford specialists to come to [the Jobs’] house for a meeting that also included some outside doctors with a more aggressive and integrated approach. . . . They agreed on a new regimen for dealing with the pain and for coordinating the other treatments.”
● In the legal (as opposed to the consumer products and services) domain, is simplicity always a virtue?
Simplicity was undeniably a major element of Jobs’, and Apple’s, success. Jobs said, “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” He refused to include an on-off switch on the iPod, and insisted that users should be able to reach any of its songs and functions intuitively, in three clicks or fewer. And he told Newsweek, about the Macintosh, “We make progress by eliminating things, by removing the superfluous.”
Yet, in 1988, Jobs dismissed without reading it IBM’s 125-page contract for licensing NeXT’s software. “’You don’t get it,’ he said as he walked out of the room. He demanded a simpler contract of only a few pages, which he got within a week.” (Isaacson does not detail the reactions of counsel for either party, or the effects on either party of the extreme deletions.)
● How closely should a professional focus her (or her firm’s) range of services and products, and her counsel to clients?
Jobs famously insisted on a narrow focus for his companies. Upon his return to Apple in 1997, he discontinued the flawed Newton personal digital assistant, and cut the sprawling line of products in development back to one in each of four specific categories: Consumer Desktop (ultimately, the iMac), Consumer Portable (iBook), Pro Desktop (Power Macintosh G3), and Pro Portable (PowerBook G3).
Jobs told Isaacson that in 2011, he’d advised Larry Page to “focus. Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down.”
Beyond identifying the areas of their own and their firms’ practices, lawyers might consider restricting the number of options that they recommend to their clients, even if their full advice includes the complete range of possibilities.
Few, though, would or should even attempt the arrangement that Paul Rand, “the dean of corporate logos,” made with Jobs in 1985 to supply a logo for NeXT: “’You can use [the one logo] I produce, or not, but I will not do options, and either way you will pay me [$100,000].’”
Jobs liked the design, but failed to convince Rand to use “a brighter and more traditional yellow”: “Rand banged his fist on the table and declared, ‘I’ve been doing this for fifty years, and I know what I’m doing.’”
● Does one have to be “ornery” or “empathy deficient” to be successful (or, more successful)?
Apple’s products (and their packaging) are famously welcoming (the iMac’s costly handle was intended primarily to signal the computer’s accessibility) and user-friendly (at a meeting with Microsoft executives, “Jobs launched into a sermon about how the Macintosh and its software would be so easy to use that there would be no manuals,” to the surprise of Bill Gates: “’Does he really mean it? Should we not tell him that we have people who are actually working on manuals?’”).
However, in person, Steve Jobs often was neither. As a number of incidents in the biography vividly demonstrate, Jobs was not inclined to suffer fools gladly, and could define “fool” very broadly indeed. If, as Jobs declared at the public introduction of the iPad in 2010, Apple has “always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts,” some of his reported conduct seems far from efficient, elegant, or enlightened.
He could be gratuitously nasty: one colleague told Isaacson, “The one question I’d truly love Steve to answer is, ‘Why are you sometimes so mean?’”
Jobs responded, to Isaacson, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not.” The biographer notes, “I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted,” but concludes that, though “it hindered him more than it helped him,” this aspect of Jobs’ personality “did, at times, serve a purpose” in effectively “forcing change” and motivating, individually and as teams, his employees.
A July 2012 cover story in Wired magazine, which indicated that Isaacson’s book remained a bestseller almost a year after Jobs’ death, found that:
“. . . his life story has emerged as an odd sort of holy scripture for entrepreneurs—a gospel and an antigospel at the same time. To some, Jobs’ life has revealed the importance of sticking firmly to one’s vision and goals, no matter the psychic toll on employees or business associates. To others, Jobs serves as a cautionary tale, a man who changed the world but at the price of alienating almost everyone around him. . . . For those who, like Jobs, have pledged to ‘put a dent in the universe,’ his thorny life story has forced a reckoning. Is it really worth being like Steve?”
(One entrepreneur deeply impressed by Jobs’ success and style was Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, whose colleagues, according to John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood (2018), “began to notice that Elizabeth was borrowing behaviors and management techniques described in [the biography]. They were all reading the book too and could pinpoint which chapter she was on based on which period of Jobs’s career she was impersonating.”)
Isaacson concludes that Jobs’ study and practice (at least, early in his career) of Zen “never quite produced in him a Zen-like calm or inner serenity.”
For his thought-provoking Cypress Trees in the Garden: The Second Generation of Zen Teaching in America (2015), Richard Bryan McDaniel interviewed leading American teachers of Zen, some of whom emphasized that they had added to the traditional Zen curriculum an emphasis on, and techniques for developing, compassion.
In McDaniel’s summary, Zen “has to manifest. . . in the development of both wisdom and compassion. . . . There is a growing sense throughout American Zen that the quest for [wisdom] alone is selfish. . . .”
One teacher, David Yoshin Radin, told him that:
“I think one of the problems with Zen teaching in America—at least the circles that I’ve bumped into—is that there’s not enough heart in it. . . . There’s not enough love in the teaching. The teaching is, ‘Do this form; do this; count your breathing; and this and that.’ . . . . People should cultivate tranquility by practicing kindness. By forgiving people. By not thinking you can undo your pain by hurting people who hurt you. By relaxing in the present moment. Really fundamental kindness ideas that I think are ignored in certain dry Zen places.”