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Dot-Com. Vested Stock Options. Initial Public Offering. The words are not just part of the New Economy patois but have become synonymous with “overnight millionaire.” So it is hardly surprising that, even in spite of the recent market turmoil, lawyers looking for a high-end payoff are trying to get a piece of the high-tech world. “It’s a way to go into business and it’s particularly appealing to young associates who have grown up with computers,” said recruiter Nancy Klein, of New York’s Klein Windmiller. Aside from the opportunity to rake in mega-bucks, lawyers are drawn to high-tech companies for the optimistic culture and the simple chance to feel they are part of a socio-economic revolution. “They can be part of some young, growing entity and get out of the stodgy hierarchical law firm environments,” Klein added. The dot-com lure is especially attractive to associates out of law school five years or less, Klein said. For this group, the most seamless way to a job at a start-up is to get hired by a firm with an established high-tech practice, such as a Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison or a Morrison & Foerster, represent dot-coms, and then segue to an in-house position. So common are such moves that Brobeck has started to fight the drain by asking clients to pay a fee for hiring away from the firm’s talent. This path, however, is an option for only the most highly credentialed lawyers — those coming out of top schools or who have done corporate transactional work at white-shoe law firms. Everyone else has a tougher row to hoe, but not necessarily an impossible one. In the dot-com world, where companies do not yet have entrenched corporate relationships, pedigree is not nearly as important as intelligence, drive and savvy. “They’re more interested in your experience, and your energy and if you ‘get it,’ as they say,” said Jonathan Lindsey, a recruiter with Major, Hagen & Africa. The first, and possibly most important step for lawyers hoping to move to a dot-com, is to simply meet others in the business. In New York City, there are enough events in Silicon Alley — many of which are free and listed on the Web — that an ambitious attorney can spend every morning, lunch hour and evening attending another seminar, cocktail party or softball game. And people looking to break in should not limit themselves to lectures about, say, the latest developments in patent prosecution. Events geared towards venture capitalists and techies can be an invaluable source of information about what is happening on the ground floor. “It’s important to get a handle on what people who are in the space see the future to be,” said Peter Corrigan, a partner at Goodkind Labaton Rudoff & Sucharow, whose practice is devoted to representing high-tech companies. For example, if a client is deciding between a business-to-business model and a business-to-consumer model, the lawyer up on industry news will know that B-to-C is not likely to draw much financing. While legwork is important, it is also a waste of time without first doing homework. “You need to go out there and talk the talk,” said Corrigan. “If an attorney comes to one of these events and they don’t know about the Internet, then they’ve done more damage than good,” offered Bob Ponce, president of Worldwide Web Artists Consortium, an organization of Internet designers, artists and entrepreneurs. “They’ve wasted my time and their time.” This does not mean that lawyers have to learn how to write code, but it wouldn’t hurt to know what a URL is. Otherwise, it is important that lawyers have corporate experience, licensing experience and an understanding of the culture of the high-tech world. One of the most salient aspects of techie culture is its lightning-fast pace. “I’ve seen acquisitions done in two weeks rather than two months,” said Corrigan. Lawyers who have any hope of surviving grow comfortable with its lightning-fast, perfect-it-later, never-mind-precedent pace. Not everyone can function under the intense time pressures. “There are attorneys that I’ve met from stodgier firms who don’t have a clue,” said Alan Blaustein, who left an associate position at Brobeck to become president of corporate development at About.com, a company dedicated to organizing information available on the Internet into an online equivalent of an encyclopedia. In fact, general counsel at dot-coms can end up cast as office bad guy for demanding more time when the rest of the team wants the deal done yesterday. Weary of being the office nay-sayers, it is not unusual for attorneys at start-ups to stop practicing law and become business executives. “As soon as lawyers go to a dot-com, they enter the space of business,” said Corrigan. And then, he said, “they don’t want to be seen as an attorney any more.” Another reality — obvious yet often overlooked — is that start-ups are a tremendous gamble, subject to the whims of investors, the vagaries of the stock market and simple bad luck. Brobeck chairman Tower Snow tells a cautionary tale about one associate who got a job at a dot-com, gave notice and cleared out her office on April 14 — the day the NASDAQ crashed. That weekend, her company lost $25 million in venture capital funding; the following Monday, she was back at Brobeck. True, this is an unusual case: Dot-coms typically do not hire in-house counsel until they have secured VC funding. But there are other risks. The stock could tank after an IPO or the company might be acquired and employees could be downsized before their options vest. Lawyers can try to protect themselves against some of the more dire scenarios in contract negotiations, but making millions is by no means guaranteed. And while the technological revolution has created more young millionaires than at any time in history, lawyers who enter dot-coms with their eyes on dollar signs could be in for a disappointment unless they also keep their eyes on that other New Economy concept: the exit strategy. A version of this story appeared in the July issue of New York Lawyer.

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