In one of my LinkedIn groups, I was greeted today by a Steve Jobs quote:
The people who think they are
crazy enough to change the world,
are the ones who do. - Steve Jobs
True enough. Intrigued, I searched for a longer version. Here is what I found:
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. (emphasis added)
I laughed inside when I saw the part about rules. Yes, Mr. Jobs, I appreciate your quote. Actually, I am one of the people who is crazy enough to think I can change the world (at least most days), yet as a lawyer much of my professional life is about rules and our relationship to rules.
So, Mr. Jobs (as if you could answer me), as someone who lives with and by rules and even writes rules in various contexts, am I not part of the club that can push the human race forward? In fact, can an attorney ever be? Or can we look at this another way? Can rules actually help the innovators, even the troublemakers?
Let’s start here: am I fond of rules? Yes and no. Rules offer safety. They give a clear set of expectations. At least when the rules are clear.
When my son was in the lower grades, he read No Rules for Michael along with others in his class, a book by Sylvia A. Rouss. The classroom then tried the same experiment as the one in the book, a day without rules. The book’s and my son’s class both learned the same lesson: without rules, everyone fights all the time, because rules help us relate to each other in a calm and orderly way. Yes, there needs to be a leader and followers, but without this structure, we often face chaos. Yes, this causes a conundrum for those who like to set their own rules, but as another popular quote makes clear:
Your rights end where my nose begins.
-versions of the above attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others
In summary, here’s my thought: rules have their place, but too many rules choke off creativity and innovation. So while I appreciate rules, I certainly don’t love them for the sake of rules. Regulation has its place, and what we should focus on as a society is not increasing the rules, but giving more thought to what we are trying to accomplish and how to write them so they are fair, targeted and easy to follow. Both in the schools and on the streets, as well as in the legislature.
Much of my job as a lawyer is figuring out what rules mean, how they apply to situations and what to do if there is no clear answer in a rule.
Much of my job as a lawyer involves figuring out what rules mean, how they apply to situations and what to do if there is no clear answer about where another person’s “nose begins”. In conversations with clients, I often use the stop sign example. It is easy to make rules about how to stop at a stop sign. You stop before a cross-walk, a certain number of feet behind the sign if there is no cross-walk, etc. It is relatively easy for the enforcer (police) to know whether someone follows those rules. Much more difficult is how to mandate complex reporting requirements, monitor compliance with contracts and other rules that do not lend themselves to a bright line analysis or easy monitoring.
Another important part of my work is to help individuals with private rule-making – what are the rules that govern relationships among private parties? These are the contracts and company policies that serve as rules for how we interact with each other. To some degree, we make up these rules as we go along. They are in some cases bound by public rules and in other cases open to interpretation and choice among the parties.
Rules, in fact, can move a society forward or hold us back, depending on the nature of the rule. The Civil Rights Movement in America, for example, was not a movement to get rid of rules that separated and subjugated some members of our society. It was instead a movement to make new rules ensuring equality. In the absence of new rules, nothing would have changed, because nothing would have compelled forward-thinking among those with outdated attitudes and beliefs.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I have been thinking about the laws (rules) in my life that I am most thankful for and those that have most changed the world. I plan to write a post later this month including some of them. I would love to have your input now or later on your thoughts about rules or if there are important rules that have touched your life.
This post is one in an occasional series about the interplay of legal practice and everyday life. Anne Marie Segal is admitted to practice law in New York and Connecticut and represents clients worldwide.