Tried and True
By Tracy Seipel
Zoom’s new general counsel Jeff True J.D. ’97 urges SCU law students to embrace law school’s hands-on practical courses, clinics.
When Jeff True J.D. ’97 landed at San Jose-based Zoom Video Communications in August as its new general counsel, COVID-19 was in full swing, the company’s name had become a verb, and True was already an avid user of Zoom’s easy-to-use videoconferencing system.
Years of in-house experience hiring and leading dozens of attorneys as a general counsel at Silicon Valley tech firms had paved the way for True’s arrival at Zoom, even if it came smack dab amid the company’s explosive growth.
“When the pandemic hit, we went from 10 million daily active meeting participants to 300 million in a matter of months,” says True. “The system just worked. It didn’t crash, it didn’t buckle under the volume. The team just did an amazing job laying the foundation of building a frictionless product that’s stable and easy to use.”
The Zoom team has grown significantly in the past year. In January 2020, Zoom had just over 2,400 employees globally. By December 2020, the company shared on its Q3 earnings call that headcount had surpassed 3,800. That includes growth in True’s own department where he has been busy rounding out the legal team with additional attorneys to support the expanding needs of the brand.
True recently sat down with SCU Law Magazine—via Zoom, of course—to talk about his journey into the eye of the socially distanced storm, advice he would offer SCU law students and graduates, and lessons learned over the years.
Who or what inspired you to go into law?
Some friends of mine in college at UCLA who were a couple years ahead of me were studying to go to law school, and that got me interested. At the same time, I was very interested in sports and the business of sports and thought about (sports agent) Leigh Steinberg signing all these wonderful professional athletes to multimillion dollar contracts. I said, “I’ll go to law school and I’ll become a sports agent.” That was my original plan.
I took a sports law class at Santa Clara and I met one of the guest speakers who worked with Leigh Steinberg’s office. I discovered what a cutthroat profession it was, and that there weren’t a ton of people who were successful sports agents. So that was a bit eye-opening. Then I looked around at what else was out there and right around that time, Yahoo, Netscape and many other technology companies were taking off. There was definitely a brewing excitement for technology and especially Internet technology. I wanted to be a part of that with my law background.
Why Santa Clara Law School?
I did some research and found out that folks who go to Santa Clara Law School are very well connected when it comes to career opportunities in the Bay Area, and I knew I wanted to live in the Bay Area long-term.
You’ve worked for other tech firms, including Palo Alto Networks, Informatica, and 2Wire. How does Zoom compare?
It’s exciting to be part of a global brand name that everyone is aware of, that people are using everyday to connect for school, for family, and for business.
It's also very humbling. I think one of my co-workers said it best: The Zoom product looks so simple and so easy on the outside, but on the inside, it's very, very complex. It’s also exciting from a career perspective to work on so many different cutting-edge legal issues that we face every day.
As general counsel, what are you mostly focused on?
We have so many issues coming in the door, from just the overwhelming volume of commercial transactions and negotiations with customers, partners and vendors.
At our recent annual user conference Zoomtopia in October, we announced dozens of new features that will be coming out in the near future. The Zoom team is constantly pushing the envelope of innovation, which is driven by our leader and founder, Eric Yuan. My team gets an early look at a lot of this innovation, as we have to navigate through commercial and IP issues, which is great. One of our priorities is to continue to support those innovators to get their products, features, and improvements out there as soon as possible, obviously in a legally compliant way, and we love being a small part of that innovation engine.
What are the most exciting challenges at a company like Zoom?
It’s the growth. If you look at my background, you can see I’ve typically joined smaller companies with smaller departments and I’ve really enjoyed building legal departments from the ground up. So although Zoom was already an amazing legal team when I joined, there was a tremendous opportunity to grow and scale the legal department. The opportunity to apply all my lessons learned from prior companies and prior legal departments at Zoom—which is happening at a much faster pace—was something I couldn’t pass up. I use the expression that at Palo Alto Networks, I grew the department from zero to 60 in about nine years. Zoom’s legal department has matched that pace in one-fourth of the time.
But we can't just keep hiring bodies and throwing lawyers at problems; we have to find ways to be more efficient so that we can deal with this high volume in an effective way. This is one of the reasons why I have implemented a legal operations initiative this year to help our department make better use of technology and artificial intelligence in order to scale with the increasingly complex business. We hired our first legal operations person this month (January).
In fact, over the last 10 years, you believe the addition of legal operations has become a “must-have” for growing legal departments.
Absolutely—having legal operations is table stakes for a growing legal department these days. Legal operations covers a lot of things. Some of the initiatives we will be focused on this year include implementing a more robust contract management system which will provide better business intelligence to the business, a new e-billing system to more effectively manage and track our outside counsel spend, automating certain tasks and workstreams, and creating self-service options for our internal clients. Many of these efforts are designed to allow attorneys to spend less time on low complexity, routine tasks, freeing them up to spend more time on complex and strategic issues.
What happens after we’re all back at work? How does Zoom continue to grow and develop, and what will be the impact on the legal department?
I think most people are recognizing that the future of work is a hybrid model where much more work will be performed remotely than ever before. Zoom will continue its mission of providing the best and most innovative, frictionless communication platform to continue connecting people around the world. The legal department will continue to partner with our business and engineering colleagues to support the growth and increasing complexity of Zoom’s business.
How did Santa Clara Law prepare you for your work now?
What I really enjoyed was where you could put into practice what you learned. I did a few hands-on experiences that I learned a lot from, including Moot Court and Trial Techniques, as well as mock negotiations as part of the alternative dispute resolution class.
One of the things that I learned from these experiences is that in order to be able to think on your feet, no amount of preparation was too much. Going out there and doing well—or doing poorly in some situations—really taught me: “All right, you’ve got to prepare more next time” or “You really have to dig in and be on your toes in order to be your best when you’re under pressure.”
The other thing I did which I learned a lot from was writing my law review comment in my second year. I really enjoyed it in the sense that I was hunkered down in my apartment for a month trying to finish this 30 page article where nearly every sentence is footnoted. I felt like an investigative journalist or nonfiction writer—really, really focused on the topic that I was really, really interested in at the time: applying the First Amendment to college football. And it was published in the Seton Hall University Journal of Sport Law. It was great training for intense, prolonged concentration, which I sometimes need as an in-house lawyer to work through a complicated issue or a project, or just to get through a ton of information and synthesize it and come up with a recommendation. It was the practical hands-on things, much more than the classes, that I really took away.
What surprised you most about your time at Santa Clara Law School?
Despite rumors of how cutthroat and competitive law school can be, I really found the students at Santa Clara to be very collaborative, very supportive, and willing to share knowledge and strategies regarding studying and test taking. That was a welcome surprise for me.
Can you talk about what you've learned from your mentors in law?
Actually, what I have benefited from is watching a number of leaders and colleagues and how they react to different situations. You could have a mentor and they can give you advice, but seeing many different people in many different scenarios and crises and stressful situations and how they react—good, bad, ugly—has had a huge effect on me, and I always try to learn from that. Synthesizing that and really learning to take a step back has helped me to keep a calm demeanor and a level head throughout my career, which as you know is incredibly valuable when the stakes are high—when everyone's stressed out and everyone's looking at you, as the lawyer, for answers and leadership.
What would you say to someone considering going to law school at Santa Clara?
I got to know some of the more junior lawyers for our internship program at my last company (Palo Alto Networks) who came out of Santa Clara Law and I was pleasantly surprised—but also a bit jealous—to hear how many new, very hands-on practical courses and clinics the University has. The school has done an amazing job embracing Silicon Valley culture and preparing students to be real lawyers, which sounds like an obvious thing, but a lot of that wasn’t there when I was in law school.
I just looked recently at the course lineup and there's a class on how engineers, business people and lawyers communicate with each other; there’s a hands-on entrepreneurs law clinic. I mean, these are amazing. If there are as close to real life experiences as you can get as a law student, definitely take advantage of those because coming out of law school simply knowing the law is not enough. You need to be able to explain it, translate it into plain English for your clients, navigate them through the issues, and then find solutions that accomplish their business objectives. If the University is offering students a chance to practice that during law school, absolutely take advantage of it.
Any advice you would offer SCU lawyers-to-be, or recent SCU law graduates about important lessons learned along the way?
These are not my words, but you can never be too prepared for anything. I also think what’s helped me over the years is to be open-minded, and not to take things personally. You’re going to work with all kinds of people, so you have to take everything in stride.
Be open-minded to different perspectives. Especially as a lawyer. There’s an expression, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But if you're a lawyer, not everything is a legal problem; try to find out what the business problem is that someone's trying to solve.
Be open to exploring that side of your personality, because that’s the only way you're going to be successful. You have to be flexible, you have to be a business partner, if nothing else, as well as a lawyer—especially working in-house—because yes, people will look at you as a lawyer, but you’re side-by-side with them on a business transaction, on a project, and they’re not looking at you as a lawyer 100 percent of the time; they’ll ask for your advice based on the things that you’ve seen and done.
And as a lawyer, don’t just say, “Well, the rule says you can't do it.” Figure out how to be creative. There are going to be times where you absolutely can’t do something a certain way, because the law says you can’t, or the SEC says you can’t. But you have to go back and say: “What is the objective, and maybe there’s another way we can accomplish it?” You have to be open-minded, you have to be creative. Unfortunately, sometimes that only comes with experience. But the sooner you put that into practice, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
Feb 1, 2021
Jeff True on Zoom, with his virtual background of a Napa Valley vineyard behind him. “Some people,” he says, “have told me that it calms them down to look at it on a busy day.” Photo courtesy of Zoom.