Photo of Stephen McConnell

It’s a National Holiday, and we do not expect to do a heckuva lot of work today. There’s a decent college bowl game tonight and our Flyers will be taking on the Hated Rangers in the Winter Classic outdoor hockey game. There’s a bottle of champagne in the fridge that somehow evaded last night’s jackals-masquerading-as-friends. And it’s time to start working on those New Year’s resolutions.

Experts tell us that New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail unless the list is short and limited to the important and attainable. We’re going to plug in the treadmill and stop falling for the “If you order dessert I’ll help you finish it” gambit. We also are thinking through some resolutions inspired by one of our Christmas presents, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs:
1. As much as we focus on technical areas (e.g., legal procedures , doctrines such as preemption, etc.), we must keep our eye on the basic human aspirations of our consumers (clients, courts, and juries). If there’s one Big Theme in the Jobs bio, it’s that Jobs was a miraculous combination of the technical and the spiritual. Jobs talked about the iPad (and, indeed, the company) residing at the intersection of liberal arts and technology. Jobs cared as much about consumer emotions as he did about computer code. Some science geeks can come up with devices that are intricate, brilliant — and ugly and user-hateful. Jobs arrived at a brilliant synthesis that embraced creativity and technology to produce tools for living. What we as lawyers do isn’t rocket, or even computer, science. But sometimes we focus unduly on technical issues and forget about how real human beings will receive and use what we say.

2. Binary thinking can be a good thing. Jobs invariably called ideas or products “amazing” or dreck (he used a much tougher word). People were either “heroes” or “bozos.” Sure, that viewpoint discards nuance. But it also facilitates action. Jobs had high standards and was decisive. He wasn’t always right, but he certainly made “a dent in the universe.” Groupthink can introduce too much compromise and muddle. We were at a presentation where a consultant said that while most consumer product organizations are promiscuous in their use of focus groups and surveys, Apple’s approach was a bit leaner. Then the consultant put up a photograph of Jobs: that’s how Apple made important decisions. We’ve been in cases where sometimes it seemed that one strong-willed plaintiff lawyer had certain advantages over a defense side frazzled by way too many diverging opinions.

3. Simplicity is the purest form of sophistication. Look at an iMac. It’s simple, uncluttered, beautiful, and invites interaction. By contrast, this post is being typed on something that looks like it was designed by an Uzbekistani death squad. It takes a lot of work to make something complicated seem simple and inevitable, but that effort is worth it, whether it’s with a device, legal brief, graphical presentation, or argument.
4. Relentless, even crazy, perfectionism, can be inspiring. Jobs was notorious for insisting that even the inside of Apple products — parts that nobody would ever likely see — had to be beautiful, with straight lines and the right colors. It seems like a maniacal, wasteful approach, but somehow that kind of craftsmanship does manifest itself it to the consumer. It’s a tough standard to meet, but what’s the point of pledging to easy New Year’s resolutions?

5. In the end, the product is the key. When Jobs returned to Apple after his exile, he gave a speech to the troops. He asked: Why is the company in trouble? His answer was blunt: “The products suck.” Jobs wasn’t in the businesses he chose (think also of Pixar) to make money, though he did pretty well in that regard. He wanted to make great products. Of course, one should lead to the other. If you have smart people, sound processes, and all the great intentions in the world, none of it matters if the products aren’t great. It reminds us of something ex-Cubs and Phillies reliever Mitch Williams says about pitching: hitters don’t see how you feel, they see what you throw. Now, you might say two things: (1) this point is perfectly obvious, and (2) how does this notion apply to legal services? Lawyers don’t actually act as if it’s the product that matters. We talk a lot about how smart and insightful and eloquent we are. But what are we actually delivering to the client (and courts and juries)? Where is the actual, ocular proof that what we are doing is helping our consumers? We think we can do better. We have some ideas. At a minimum, those are questions we need to ask ourselves everyday in 2012 and beyond.
Happy New Year.