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How to find the right lawyer for your startup

Choosing a tech-savvy lawyer for your startup isn’t easy, but it’s critical that you find the right person. Not all-self proclaimed web startup lawyers are equal, and some can do more harm than good. Figuring out how code and law fit together requires a great deal of curiosity and experience, and an ability to see the big picture. You will often find 21st-century lawyers playing with new technologies that don’t have an obvious business case for lawyers, yet. They are just curious.

The best lawyers for startups that I know move easily between worlds; helping non-profits that fight for a free internet, re-thinking code and law in the the academy, counselling clients who are building next generation businesses, and helping corporations adapt and adapt again.

It was not so long ago that a senior partner of a major law firm didn’t even use email. He would have had his secretary print his emails and dictate the replies verbally while she typed. Somewhere between a generation that couldn’t use the internet and a generation who assume that the internet will always work without wondering how it works are those rare lawyers fascinated by the dance of code and law. How do you find them?

Inspired tech lawyers seem to have an entrepreneurial streak. Many of the leading lawyers in South Africa have started their own law firms or consultancies. A few hardy pioneers have started new departments in established firms. Quite a number have also started other business, or helped found non profit organisations. You won’t get the “one-stop-shop” benefit of a big firm from an entrepreneurial lawyer, but you’ll get something more valuable; an advisor who understands that your world keeps changing, and who understands your drive to build something new because he or she shares it.

Lawyer and academic Larry Lessig, founder of Creative Commons was teaching at Stanford when he came up with a masterful legal strategy for Second Life, while copyright expert William Patry taught at Cardozo before becoming Senior Copyright Counsel at Google.

What should you look for when you are looking for the right lawyer for your startup?

    Tech-savvy:

  • If he’s the real deal, he’ll provide free resources on the law firm’s website. If not, you’ll find javascript-heavy websites that appear to have escaped from 1998.
  • Tech-loving:

  • Good tech lawyers don’t just work with technology, they play with it, too. If she’s a pro, then she’ll definitely blog or tweet. If not, she’s likely to have all the best gadgets but may not be using them to their potential.
  • In Touch:

  • The kind of lawyer you want reads Boyle, Lessig and Benkler. The other type vaguely discusses online piracy.
  • Entrepreneurial:

  • A good startup lawyer will have the same drive to build something new as you do. If not he may talk about himself as a “cyberlaw” expert.
  • Post-geographic:

  • If this is the person for you, she might arrange to meet in a coffee shop because it has the best, cheapest wi-fi. If she’s a wannabe, she’ll probably be flying to London just to get the next iPhone
  • Solid communicator:

  • You’ll know you’ve found your match if your lawyer is able to communicate well and can talk freely about the pros and cons of Prezi and Presentation Zen. If you’re falling into a coma after reams of Powerpoint, then your search for the right tech lawyer needs to carry on.

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  • nice. this pretty much describes me :D I want to ban the word cyber (a/s/l got pics?)…..does anyone even use it anymore? And although my main website looks like crap (in the process of being redesigned) there is a lot of free info. I also have a beautiful blog…and about 40 other websites that I manage. So yea, I’m kind of a tech nerd (i’m a product of efnet/undernet). I also have a gaming rig as my work computer. But i’m not gonna lie, I’m not a huge fan of the creative commons approach that lessig postures for. Oh well, can’t be perfect.

  • George

    Thanks Andrew.
    So the really important question – who would you recommend as a good startup lawyer in South Africa? I can’t imagine there are many of them around. Your input would be most welcome.

  • I cringe every time I see someone use the word “cyber”, especially in the context of law.

  • Love the post Andrew even if it is for selfish reasons!

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