Bill Neukom, now the managing general partner and CEO of my beloved San Francisco Giants, seems like one of those guys who has led ten great lives while the rest of us struggle to manage just one.
Perhaps best known as the most famous in-house lawyer in American business, Neukom started working at Microsoft when the software giant had a dozen employees. He stayed for 25 years and, as he modestly told a recent gathering of lawyers in Sun Valley, Idaho where he has a home, his bushel basket was positioned properly under the Microsoft tree as the stock options just kept falling. He made a bundle and is now reinvesting it in some handsome and useful ways.
Obviously, he bought into the Giants ownershipand has had an influential hand in strengthening the front office and building a scrappy team, including many cast offs, that won a World Series last year. But, that is hardly the sum of what Neukom has been spending his money on.
He donated $20 million for a new law school building at Stanford, his law school alma mater. (The Seattle Times couldn’t resist pointing out, Microsoft anti-trust decrees notwithstanding, that Attorney General Eric Holder participated in the dedication ceremony for the William H. Neukom Building in Palo Alto.)
WJP is dedicated to leading “a global, multidisciplinary effort to strengthen the rule of law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity.” A noble sounding mission that basically boils down to this: most of the rest of the world does not embrace nor have the tradition of a justice system that is based on well-defined rules, established and transparent practices and real accountability.
Neukom, who conceived of and founded the World Justice Project while he was president of the American Bar Association (another of his many lives), simply says without adherence to what lawyers call “the rule of law” people and institutions in the developing world will never have the opportunity and equality that all of us deserve.
The World Justice Project has developed a Rule of Law Index that evaluates countries around the world and the degree to which they respect the rule of law. For example, the Philippines ranked poorly, while Singapore ranked very high. Many of the lowest marks, perhaps not surprisingly, go to countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to establishing an objective database on the level of adherence to the rule of law, the Index has generated substantial international media interest like this line from the Jordan Times: “The index ranked Jordan 15th for clear, publicized and stable laws, essential for security and investment. However, in terms of promoting greater transparency, there is room for improvement.”
Neukom and his associates have importantly cast a very bright light on a fundamental human right that most Americans (too easily perhaps) simply take for granted. The U.S. justice system, don’t get me wrong, is far from perfect, but the western notion of how courts and judges, legislatures and the media should operate, is still a model for much of the rest of the world.
Thanks to Bill Neukom, serious work is underway to move the needle on this fundamentally important issue.
When I had the opportunity to hear Neukom speak recently, I was struck by his passion for the organization he has created, but also by one personal thing he said. The money he made at Microsoft, he said, “isn’t my money.” He meant, I think, that he felt a motivation greater than many of us do to give something back. He’s living proof that you can do well and do good.
Neukom is nearly as passionate about the ball club. He’s hands on, extraordinarily knowledgeable and, after last year’s surprising World Series win, willing to concede that magic must always be laced with hard work in order to win it all. He calls himself a “lucky guy.”
“How would I describe the guy that can fire me?” former Giant player and broadcast Duane Kuiper told the San Francisco Chronicle on opening day in April. “Let’s see, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, very handsome, one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever known. You see where this is going.”
Yup. However, in the case of Bill Neukom, super lawyer, philanthropist, baseball guy, rule of law advocate, it’s also all true.