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Over Labor Day Weekend, four Thelen Reid & Priest lawyers took a firm-financed “business development” trip to the annual bacchanal in the Nevada desert known as Burning Man. At first blush, it’s hard to say for which of these institutions this culture clash is more ominous. San Francisco-based Thelen, and the four lawyers who rode the firm-supplied motorhome to the three-day anti-establishment orgy can — and should — label this a natural evolution of the lawyer-client relationship. Black Rock City, the temporary desert utopia where cash is worthless and occupants consider casual dress body paint and a string of beads, was a virtual dot-commune, perfect for hooking up with the techies that make Northern California hum, says five-time man-burner Gil Silberman, a partner in Thelen’s emerging companies practice. “It’s a new world out there, and a whole new crop of businesses out there,” he says. But “out there” also aptly describes the visual of a firm like Thelen raising its flag at a dust-choked encampment named “Spiral Oasis,” which it shared with the alternative art displays of 15 clients and other techies, a trampoline and the “Alien Sex Camp,” an anthropological (oh, sure) study of the effect of technology on sex. Silberman, whose plugged-in boutique, Britton Silberman & Cervantez, merged with Thelen in June, says the firm “generally wishes us well.” As it should. Just as merging with Britton Silberman won Thelen some credibility in the richest sector going, a trip like this is a marketer’s dream — it cuts another edge in the firm’s high-tech belt. “I don’t golf,” Silberman says, nailing the difference between his group and the way many of his partners mix with clients. “But I respect their golf,” he hastens to add. So, putting aside some senior partners’ queasy worries about “how it looks,” a few lawyers raving in the high desert under a 52-foot, neon-encrusted bonfire is probably a good thing for the firm and, by extension, the profession. It illustrates a pulse and a willingness to change. But can Burning Man coexist with the dot-coms and their counsel? After all, it describes itself as another planet “where you’re not the weirdest kid in the classroom,” hardly a comforting environment for most lawyers. The word “lawyer” appears only once on its extensive Web site, in a “Burning Man Myth,” that the wooden man started as an effigy of the founder’s lost lover’s lawyer. Silberman says yes, “It survived, despite the lawyers.” He reports seeing plenty of incidents he thought called for a lawyer on the playa, where venture capitalists and software developers were plying their wares, but claims he and the three Thelen associates with him kept a low profile. “We did a lot of dancing,” he says. And as far as the festival getting too commercial, Silberman scoffs. “That’s like saying the South Pole is commercialized,” he said. “It still has a long way to go” before it’s ruined. Lest the firm think such a laid-out lifestyle might be too seductive, Silberman says the lawyers who accompanied him, all on their first pilgrimage, enjoyed themselves but “still want to be lawyers.” And finally, Silberman, who’s been worshipping at the pagan pyro-spectacle since law school, is a perfect example of the basic immutability of the profession. You can turn a lawyer loose 100 miles from nowhere, in the midst of 25,000 humans bent on redefining abnormality, and he’ll still end up admitting: “I did spend some time writing a patent during the quiet hours.”

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