Lawyering in the Tech World

By Paul Freiberger

When people think of lawyers working in tech, especially lawyers who entered the profession with the goal of a tech-centric career, they tend to picture people who came to the law through the technology portal. The quintessential example – perhaps the stereotype – is the MIT graduate who majored in electrical engineering and has made law school part of a journey that leads inevitably back to tech.

It’s a career path that parallels the path of a doctor or nurse who adds a JD in order to specialize in medical malpractice or to bring the legal perspective to a role in hospital administration or medical ethics. The common thread is a specialized expertise that can be applied to a new context, and the common hope is that such expertise will make for an effortless transition.

In all those fields, however, the original discipline is not the heart of legal work. The best malpractice lawyers aren’t necessarily drawn from the ranks of physicians. The best lawyers in tech don’t always have backgrounds in engineering or computer science. Lawyers can succeed because, in the end, the practice of law is more about the law itself than about the subject matter at issue.

Tech offers ample room for creativity and meaningful work...characterized by a perennial need for good lawyering.

Obviously, it’s not that the subject matter is irrelevant. Sometimes, you have to get quickly up to speed, but that’s something good lawyers do. If lawyers aren’t looking specifically at jobs in tech because they’re not “techies,” they would do well to strike that from the list of factors material to career decision-making.

Take the case of John Sculley, who served as Apple’s CEO from 1983 to 1993. Before joining Apple, Sculley wasn’t building computers in his garage. He wasn’t a Cal Tech prodigy who lived and breathed programming. When he was approached by Steve Jobs, he’d already spent 15 years at PepsiCo, ending his career in soft drinks as president of Pepsi-Cola from 1977 to 1983.

Sculley was well paid and successful, apparently content with his lot, and he certainly wasn’t the obvious choice to run a big computer company. He was persuaded by what’s come to be called a “legendary pitch” delivered by Jobs: "Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?"

During Sculley’s tenure, Apple’s sales grew from $800 million to $8 billion. The increase wasn’t all Sculley’s doing, and he’s a somewhat controversial figure in Apple’s history, but the point here is not to dissect Sculley’s successes and failures. Instead, it’s to underline the point that a CEO with an MBA and an undergraduate degree in architectural design was able to lead a technological giant in a direction that was indeed world-changing.

A meaningful career in tech doesn’t necessarily mean changing the world on quite that scale. The fact is that tech is an exciting field unto itself, one that offers ample room for creativity and meaningful work, and one that’s characterized by a perennial need for good lawyering on a smaller scale.

And we don’t have to limit that to a need for good lawyering. Get your legal resume ready as there’s often a need for lawyering, period.

Bloodhound Technologies began its life as a five-person start-up in 1996, developing web-based applications to detect healthcare fraud and billing errors. It incorporated in 1998 and went through five rounds of venture financing, growing consistently until its sale in 2011 to Verisk Health for $82.5 million.

In the years preceding that sale, the venture capitalists had managed to dilute the founders’ share of the business without mercy. Of that $82.5 million, the chief founder, the one who’d put the whole thing together, walked away with $29,266. Other members of the founding team did even worse. One received $4,967. Two others received less than $1,000. The last received a princely $99.

It’s an extreme example, but it teaches a couple of lessons. The most obvious lesson stems from the founding team's blatant failure to protect its interests and its decision to act without legal advice. Perhaps they were a bit too trusting or a little too happy to have attracted VC attention. Perhaps they balked at the cost of legal help. It’s unlikely that they look at their thrift through the same eyes now.

What’s more instructive is the kind of legal help they needed. They didn’t need a lawyer who could program in Java or manage a database. They needed someone who knew about corporations, who understood the duties of officers and directors and who knew the difference between direct and derivative actions, someone who could explain what “ultra vires” means.

In other words, they needed someone who’d paid attention in Corporations. That person could have changed this little bit of the world in a big way, and that’s the kind of opportunity available to a lawyer willing to consider tech, regardless of her background.

Paul Freiberger is President of Shimmering Resumes, a career counseling and resume writing firm that specializes in helping lawyers and other professionals nationwide to improve their careers. He is the author of When Can You Start? Ace the Job Interview and Get Hired, Third Edition.

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