CURIOUS MINDS: Talking with Adam Sterling, Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Business

Topics: Berkeley Center for Law & Business, Client Relations, Curious Minds, Data Analytics, Efficiency, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Practice Engineering, Process Management

Curious Minds

We continue our monthly column, “Curious Minds” which was created and written by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work.

In this installment, Rose speaks with Adam Sterling, Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Business, about his influences, where he gets his creative ideas, and how best to disrupt an entrenched industry.

Rose Ors: Who are the people outside of the legal industry that have most influenced the work you do today?

Adam Sterling: Prof. Kellie McElhaney at the Haas School of Business has been hugely influential. I took her class, The Business Case for Investing in Women, as an MBA student. The class shone a spotlight on the many challenges that women and other under-represented groups face in a way that has made a lasting impression. The class was unconventional in that Prof. McElhaney didn’t just make arguments about equity as a social right, she helped her students make arguments about equity as a business imperative.

Since becoming the executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Business, my goal has been to provide programs that, like Prof. MacElhaney’s class, generate a free flow of ideas and conversation around hot-button issues like equity, sustainability, artificial intelligence, and leadership.

Rose Ors: What books have influenced your work and how you approach it?

Adam Sterling: Probably the most inspirational work that has shaped how I try to live my life
personally and professionally is David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. It was later published in book form as, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. It is a beautiful piece about empathy and compassion. I read it once a year.

Another must-read business book for me is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. In it, Collins takes us through how 11 companies transformed themselves from good companies into great ones. He chose those companies — such as Abbott Laboratories, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, and Walgreens — after studying the performance of 1,435 companies over 40 years. The book is a primer on how these companies became great and maintained that greatness. The fast answer: Discipline — disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.

Curious Minds

Adam Sterling, Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Business

Another book that has influenced our work at the Berkeley Center is Bernie Madoff, the Wizard of Lies by Diana Henriques. We recently launched a new initiative to study financial fraud; and Diana, who serves as the chair of our advisory board, is a trailblazer in journalism around financial fraud.

Rose Ors: Where do you get your most creative ideas?

Adam Sterling: I gain a lot of insights and ideas from talking with a diverse group of people.
I speak with lawyers in the private, in-house, and nonprofit sectors. I speak with professors and students from different disciplines. I speak with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. These conversations give me the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and to listen intently to problems that are in search of solutions. I then work with my colleagues to develop programs and initiatives that tackle some of these problems head-on.

Rose Ors: You also travel the globe.

Adam Sterling: Berkeley attracts a large number of international students. The university’s alumni network has a presence in 33 countries. Every year Berkeley Law’s JD and LL.M programs welcome more than 100 international law students. So, the global composition of our student body, especially our Berkeley Law students, and the global nature of law make our programs relevant abroad. This year, we held a number of our signature programs in Switzerland, Finland, and Chile.

Rose Ors: What’s a key big picture question facing the legal industry?

Adam Sterling: One question is how do you disrupt an industry that is so entrenched in precedent — in doing things the way they’ve always been done?

That said, disruption is inevitable. General counsels are becoming far more vocal in a number of areas, including equity and inclusion. A number of groups are working individually and in concert to change the rules around who can provide legal services. The millennial generation embrace of technology and work-life balance will also have an impact.

It will be a long journey, but it will lead to welcome change.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.