Bruce Sewell, general counsel of Apple Inc., announced his retirement Friday after eight years of leading the company’s legal and security efforts.
In an interview with Corporate Counsel Friday, he confirmed it is a true retirement and he plans to turn his focus away from the law for the time being.
“I’m done being a GC,” Sewell said. “If you want to be a GC, Apple is as good as it gets…It’s really difficult to do anything else. There’s not another GC job I would take.”
He continued, “I am absolutely convinced that it’s the best legal job on the planet. If I wanted to still be a lawyer, this would have been a no-brainer. But I’m just at a point in my life where I’d like to try a few other things.”
Sewell doesn’t have any concrete plans for his next steps but would like to explore non-legal business opportunities. He mentioned that he is on the board of a couple of companies, including a startup, and might like to become more involved there or possibly with a restaurant chain in which he has a stake.
Behind the scenes, Sewell said he informed Apple CEO Tim Cook of his decision to leave well over a year ago, and they started making preparations for his retirement.
He recalled telling Cook: “I’m ready to go do something else with my life, but I’m not in any hurry.”
The company then held a “very, very comprehensive” search for a successor, according to Sewell. Apple hired a search firm, and he said “every name was on the table.”
After a search that lasted approximately 18 months, Katherine Adams, general counsel of Honeywell International Inc., was ultimately chosen to lead the legal team.
“I think she’s the absolute perfect choice,” he said, pointing to her experience as a general counsel with technology and IP experience, and as a trial lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Sewell’s successor will “have a very full plate,” he said. “[The company’s patent dispute with] Qualcomm [Inc.] is certainly an important case to Apple, but we have an interesting situation with the European Commission over taxes,” he noted. “That’s a $13 billion matter. We have many things in security, encryption and cyberspace.”
Fundamentally, although “the names and faces on the complaints” change over time, Sewell said the mission of Apple’s legal department–to deal with regulators and defend the company’s IP–remains the same as when he joined the company from Intel Corp. in 2009.
Sewell recalled that his early days at Apple were marked by “The Cellphone Wars”–referring to a period of roughly three to four years when Apple, Google, Motorola and Samsung “were all fighting one another in court over these things called cellular essential patents.”
Apple’s legal battles changed over time as technology evolved and the company expanded its business. The legal department has “grown a lot,” he said. He did not disclose exact numbers of attorneys in the group but said it is comparable in size to a mid-size law firm.
“We’ve had to expand because we are increasingly facing new projects and new areas of the law,” he said.
Since Sewell joined, he said the company has had to hire different types of lawyers than it previously had, say, a decade or 15 years ago, simply because “the business is changing.” For example, the Apple Watch and HealthKit activities have created a need to hire attorneys with a background in health. Or lawyers hired for Apple Pay might bring expertise around finance.
Apple’s top lawyer made headlines in 2016 as he defended the tech giant from a court order that would have forced the company to hand over iPhone access to the FBI. The bureau was looking for a “back door” into the iPhone so it could retrieve information from the cellphone of one of the perpetrators in the 2015 San Bernardino, California mass shooting.
“Breaking encryption is more dangerous than it is helpful,” Sewell told Corporate Counsel, adding that giving this access is “something we should never be forced to do.”
Sewell stepped into a public and contentious debate around privacy when he testified before Congress that allowing access would set a bad precedent. Ultimately, the FBI dropped the case after it found a way into the device without Apple’s help.
He thinks that although there was no court ruling on the issue, it was the best outcome for Apple that the company didn’t have to give access to its device. But he added that it “leaves open the question of what happens if this arises again.”
Sewell acknowledges that the case was very public and dealt with “an incredibly important issue,” but he’s not personally taking the credit for Apple’s impact in the larger privacy and security debate.
“Apple’s been leading the charge. I’ve just been fortunate to be a part of it,” he said.
Still, Sewell said Apple’s fight with the FBI was “the first time the population as a whole, the first time our users and other citizens really confronted the issue.”
While San Bernardino was crucial “for the debate,” Sewell said he finds the written decision in a different case– a 2016 companion case also involving iPhone data– to be more important in terms of the law. In that ruling, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein of New York’s Eastern District determined that Apple did not have to help the U.S. government by extracting data from an iPhone used in a drug case.
Surprisingly, with all of the transitions Sewell has witnessed at Apple, he doesn’t feel like the rise of online music streaming brought any major changes to his job description over the years. He said “music has always been a part of Apple’s DNA” and he downplayed the industry’s disputes with artists regarding royalty payments. He said he doesn’t foresee these disagreements being a huge issue for the company’s legal department moving forward.
“My sense is that Apple’s on the right side of putting the artist first,” he said. When pressed about a letter sent by singer and songwriter Taylor Swift in 2015, he explained that this was a matter that was resolved “very rapidly.”
In an open letter to Apple and chief executive Cook, Swift had called out the company’s music service for offering a three-month trial to members during which the writers, producers or artists behind the music being streamed would not be paid. Hours after the letter was made public, Apple changed course and stated it would in fact pay artists a reduced rate during the trial period.
“Apple’s always had incredible admiration for Taylor Swift and I think Taylor would say now that we resolved it in exactly the right way,” he said.
Sewell is set to leave Apple at the end of the year, but he said he is more than willing to help with Adams’ transition and will stay if he is needed past 2017.
“I have let them know no matter when it is or where I am, I’m just a phone call away,” he said, adding, “I will remain Apple’s biggest supporter.”