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MLaw grad Jon Sobel: On risk, lawyers, and entrepreneurial life

By John Masson
Dec. 7, 2012

Oil and water. Hatfield and McCoy.

Risk and lawyers.

It was up to a well-known Silicon Valley leader, 1990 Michigan Law grad Jon Sobel, to try to dispel one of the central myths of modern lawyering: that attorneys and risk are mortal enemies.

"Good lawyers triage risk," Sobel told a packed Hutchins Hall classroom during a lunch talk this week. "They distinguish between problems that are fatal and problems that can be managed.... I truly believe you have to take acceptable risks."

Jon Sobel, '90

When Sobel delivers a talk on "Risk: Frameworks for Law and Life," he knows whereof he speaks. He's the CEO of SightMachine, an early-stage company applying Internet technology and computer vision to improve manufacturing. He also has held senior positions with other Silicon Valley luminaries, such as Tesla Motors, Yahoo!, and SourceForge.

In speaking about business and entrepreneurial life, Sobel highlighted the importance of maintaining the right attitude when it comes to risk. And he reminded a room full of aspiring and/or actual lawyers that entrepreneurs, in particular, are a different breed.

"While it's never boring, working with entrepreneurs is not easy," he said. "Entrepreneurs don't want to eliminate risk—often, they are seeking risk." That's because opportunity is practically composed of risk, he said.

"Risk is danger," he said. "It is opportunity. It is always there in the background."

He illustrated the philosophy with a couple of stories. He mentioned Google, which, in the early days of the Internet, was the target of blistering criticism over copyright issues and Internet piracy.

The issues still aren't completely settled, but Sobel said he doesn't believe the company ever intended to enable piracy. Instead, he said, the company was taking the calculated risk that getting out in front in controversial content matters was worth the risk.

"They decided to bear the risk of copyright lawsuits, so they could become leaders in their field," he said.

Sobel peppered the talk with pithy observations, which the audience seemed to take to heart. To wit:

  • Probabilities always matter, and they are rarely fixed
  • Human beings are very bad at estimating risk
  • You do not create without danger
  • Experts are necessary to inform, but dangerous to rely on
  • Being honest with yourself and others about what could go wrong is absolutely imperative
  • "You gotta earn the right to give advice"
  • The key question in assessing catastrophic risk: "Would it blow up our company?"
  • Always, always think for yourself.

Part of that final point is facilitated by a legal education, he added.

"When I got into business, there was a lot to learn," he said. "But I am convinced the six years I spent practicing (law) enabled everything else I've done."

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