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.
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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?
- 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.
- The kind of lawyer you want reads Boyle, Lessig and Benkler. The other type vaguely discusses online piracy.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.