Apple Inc.'s Bruce Sewell remains deeply engaged with GW Law
Bruce Sewell, senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary of one of the world's best-known companies, Apple Inc., has carved out an impressive legal career. But the irony is not lost on him. Mr. Sewell, JD '86, never intended to study law.
He had planned to enroll at The George Washington University School of Medicine.
Mr. Sewell spent much of his childhood in the United Kingdom and, in 1979, earned a BS in psychology from the University of Lancaster. Working as a paramedic, he then decided to study medicine. His father, formerly an engineer with Boeing, happened at the time to be teaching ethics of management to engineering students at GW.
The university had a long-standing policy of waiving undergraduate tuition for the children of faculty, "and in 1980 or 1981, GW changed the provision and said that if you were the child of a professor and did not do an undergrad degree at GW, then you could do your graduate degree for free," Mr. Sewell said.
Eager to take advantage of that benefit, he applied to GW, only to discover that the offer applied to everything but a medical degree.
"I chose JD because they wouldn't let me have an MD," he said, "but within a semester I fell in love with the law program."
It wasn't the only twist in Mr. Sewell's career path. Although he planned to become a litigator, he instead has emerged as a high-profile global specialist in intellectual property rights, including as a member of the team representing RKO Pictures in the much-watched dispute with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) over the colorization of black and white movies.
Before joining Apple in 2009, he spent 14 years at Intel Corp., rising to senior vice president and general counsel.
"Bruce has been in the position of leading two of the biggest high-tech companies through issues including intellectual property, antitrust … and then there's the whole global side of tech companies," said Intellectual Property Advisory Board Associate Dean for Intellectual Property Law Studies John Whealan. "Guys like Bruce are real leaders of companies. He's a general counsel, but he could just as easily be a CEO. There's no question about it."
Along the way, Mr. Sewell established a reputation for giving back to his alma mater, which he says has "without a doubt the best intellectual property program in the country." Citing the family connection to GW, where he and his wife studied and his father taught, Mr. Sewell and his wife, Cynthia Sewell, BA '82, MBA '87, this year endowed a scholarship in memory of his father.
The Homer B. Sewell Scholarship Fund supports qualified JD students studying intellectual property law.
Mr. Sewell said he focused on scholarships because he worries about people who can't afford to go to law school, as well as the debt burden on students when they finish their studies.
"Scholarship fundraising has been a priority for the Law School over the past seven years," said Rich Collins, associate vice president of law development. More than $11 million has been raised, and last year the school provided nearly $20 million in financial aid.
Beyond the scholarship, Mr. Sewell is engaged with GW on several levels. He is credited with the ongoing participation of both Intel and Apple on the Law School's Intellectual Property Advisory Board. In March, he recruited the general counsels at Cisco, eBay, TiVo and independent production company Lucasfilm to join him in a panel discussion before advisory board members at a meeting in California.
"I could never have assembled a panel like that," Associate Dean Whealan said. "I think it was unprecedented to have five general counsels together in a room talking about intellectual property."
Six months later, while at GW to accept the university's 2011 Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award during Alumni Weekend, Mr. Sewell spent time with students, talking about how his degree helped shape his career. Mr. Collins said Mr. Sewell went "out of his way to encourage law students to contact him directly if they are looking for jobs."
"My advice is to tell students to choose the parts of the law that they're really interested in," Mr. Sewell said. "Don't decide to do corporate law if you're really interested in environmental law. Don't be a litigator if you really love to write briefs. Focus on what really rings your bell, because when you get out of law school and start practice, you're going to spend a lot of time doing what you've selected."
Away from GW, Mr. Sewell has been feted for community contributions, most notably his involvement with Equal Justice Works, an initiative that provides two-year fellowships to young lawyers assigned to projects or cases in underserved communities. In late 2009, he received Equal Justice Works' highest honor for spearheading an in-house pro bono legal program when he worked at Intel. That program, now replicated by other businesses, allowed Intel's legal team to lend its skills to the community.
Even though Mr. Sewell never became a doctor, he still managed to put his paramedic skills to the test while at GW Law. Working at a D.C. fire station when he wasn't in class, he once responded to a call to help a woman in labor.
"A couple was on the way to the hospital when their car broke down," he said. "I delivered a baby in the ambulance. A girl.
"Scariest thing in my life."
—Mary A. Dempsey