We continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Seth Jaffe, executive vice president and general counsel for Levi Strauss & Co, recently spoke with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about playing in an orchestra, the value of exploration, and being open to change.
Rose Ors: What life moments have defined you?
Seth Jaffe: Being born in New York. I have lived in California more than twice as long as I lived in New York, and I am a Californian, but growing up in New York, I learned how to deal with aggressive people. I am told, however, that the New Yorker in me comes out when I am playing sports.
My mom died just when I turned 12. That was a defining and psychologically significant moment. Her death forced me to grow up earlier than I was prepared to. I think I handled it by being relentlessly focused on achievement in school.
Ultimately, marrying Merrie and raising Noah and Julia has been the most important journey in my life.
My most recent defining moment was when I returned to Levi Strauss & Co. as the company’s general counsel. Levi’s is such a values-driven company, and my role gives me a platform to speak on legal and social issues that matter to me. I became a lawyer to make a difference — to be a force for positive change in the world. Levi’s enables its people to be change agents. I feel I make an impact.
Rose Ors: What advice you would give your 20-year-old self today?
Seth Jaffe: “Stop agonizing so much over every decision and trust your gut!” One of my favorite quotes is the opening line of Dr. Spock’s classic baby book: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” He was talking about parenting, but it applies to most of life’s big decisions.
I’d advise my 20-year-old self to “slow down and give yourself time to think about what really matters”. You miss a lot if you don’t stop, look around, and explore.
I would urge my younger self to to be a life-long learner. Perpetual curiosity is a great quality in a colleague, an employee, a friend, and a spouse. I’d like to think I have followed this advice a little bit. But the follow-up advice — always be open to making major changes — is one that I haven’t seen much in myself or my peer set. It resonates much more with millennials and Gen Z.
Rose Ors: What do you find most personally rewarding about your work?
Seth Jaffe: I love to teach. Being a general counsel provides me the opportunity to guide and teach my team. It allows me to coach and give advice to our leaders and our board.
I am also inspired by the unique public platform Levi’s provides. The brand and the company are so iconic and respected that what we say gets an audience. So, if we are speaking out on good governance, common-sense gun laws, sustainability, or the rights and the well-being of workers, people actually listen. They may not always agree, but they hear us. We are able to influence the influencers. It is a great privilege to be part of a company making a difference.
The amount of new things I learn every day at work is exhilarating. Whether I am traveling or here in the Bay Area, I am always encountering new ideas, different customs and languages, unusual business or leadership challenges — there is always something to push me. It’s terrific.
Rose Ors: What are some of the things you are passionate about?
Seth Jaffe: I love nothing more than adventures with my kids: scuba diving, skiing, exploring new places.
Besides my family, I am passionate in my support for K-12 education. I am on the board of a network of schools in Israel called Hand in Hand. It’s one of the few institutions in Israel that is truly mixed. Exactly half of the administrators, teachers, and students are Jewish and half are Arab. The schools are run as a little bit of hope for the future: perhaps this model of working and living together will be replicated in other institutions and in the society as a whole.
Another lifelong passion of mine is playing music. I am in an orchestra and it is one of the things that brings me great joy. I started playing the piano when I was very little. But by middle school I wanted to play music with other kids, so I switched from piano to drums and joined several bands and orchestras. Ever since then, wherever I’ve lived, I have played in a band or orchestra.
Rose Ors: What have you learned playing in an orchestra that’s similar or different from leading an in-house legal department?
Seth Jaffe: An orchestra epitomizes the notion that every individual must contribute — play their part — or the whole enterprise collapses. In an orchestra you have to listen to your fellow musicians and adapt accordingly — constantly. All of those things are vital in working with teams, including in-house legal departments.
I would urge my younger self to to be a life-long learner. Perpetual curiosity is a great quality in a colleague, an employee, a friend, and a spouse.
Rose Ors: And the conductor?
Seth Jaffe: The role of a conductor is to bring out the best in the orchestra. Historically, most conductors ran their orchestras by intimidation. In contrast, the great young conductors of today do not command the orchestra members as much as guide and empower them. As a leader, I try to encourage and guide my team.
Leadership is not about telling people what to do. It is about opening them to the possibilities of what they can do, and helping them to do it better.
Rose Ors: Finally, what would be your advice to someone brand new to the job of general counsel?
Seth Jaffe: First, be a trusted business partner and a guardian of corporate integrity. Always maintain a balance between these two principles. Second, learn the business by asking a lot questions. You should be asking more than telling, and listening more than talking. Third, establish deep and authentic relationships, built on trust. This is more important than whatever power or influence comes with the title.
Next, build a great legal team and nourish the individuals and the team as a whole. Fifth, remember: “Responsiveness rules the day.” The thing that our colleagues and clients want more than anything is for us to be responsive, to be available, to be adaptable, and to really hear them. Next, always be objective and independent. Our CEO always says I am Switzerland.
Last, but most important: Spend the time to figure out what your personal values are and let them be your guide. Part of the job of the general counsel is to deal with the hard questions that others have not been able to answer. Often, it comes down to a question of values.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.