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Keith Mendelson arrives at lunch smiling and relaxed — surprising for someone who has had two dot-com employers crumble around him in the past 20 months. The former general counsel of Herndon, Va.-based LifeMinders Inc. has been unemployed since Oct. 24, the day before his dot-com announced that it was being swallowed up by the Cross Media Marketing Corp. of New York. The wild ride started in April 2000, when Mendelson left Pillsbury Madison & Sutro (now Pillsbury Winthrop, based in San Francisco) to join McLean, Va.’s now-defunct Global TeleExchange Inc., whose funding ran out just six months later. But Mendelson, 48, shows no tension, no reticence to talk. After two brief stints as a general counsel, he’s becoming outside counsel again — this time at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice’s McLean office. Instead of regret or disappointment at the outcomes of his ventures, he simply labels the time a “great sabbatical. “The years of 1998, 1999 and early 2000 were just such anomalies. I recognized looking back on those anomaly years [that] for a small company to actually become successful is very, very hard,” he says. “It’s fun to do, but from an economic point of view, you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re the one who’s going to get the payoff.” Though he is among the innumerable dot-commers who never managed to cash in on the elusive promise of “fabulous wealth,” he says, “I was learning a tremendous amount, and just sort of seeing the world from another point of view. If that’s the only cost, then I’m fine with it.” As he munches on a crabcake sandwich at Arlington, Va.’s Clarendon Grill, Mendelson reflects on his year at LifeMinders. “I joined LifeMinders in November of 2000. The beginning of the dot-com demise had already started by that point,” he says. “LifeMinders really believed it was going to be one of the survivors, and I did, too. It had a lot of cash in November.” But fourth-quarter revenues for the Internet direct-marketing company dropped in 2000. It soon became clear to management that something had to be done. “It was only as Q1 and Q2 began to come into our vision that we realized that the company probably wasn’t going to be able to survive as a stand-alone company,” he says. “When I began in November, I was really hired because we thought we were going to be acquiring,” he says. “By the time we got to April and May, and began to realize we were looking to be on the acquired side, I was applying my M&A experience to that.” Once a company that employed over 200 people, LifeMinders instituted a small round of layoffs at the start of 2001, and then a much larger one in the spring. Only about 20 LifeMinders employees moved over to Cross Media in October. While preparing the company for acquisition, and watching others lose their jobs, Mendelson began to realize that he, too ,was going to be unemployed. “I came home and I said to my wife, ‘LifeMinders is going to go away,’ ” he says. “ My first thought was to try to find something similar. But that was sort of fleeting, leading to the thought that it could be very comfortable going back to a law firm. “I have a much different perspective on the security of the corporate world,” he adds. The winding down of his dot-com dream also meant that he wouldn’t get a chance to do the kind of complex work he had expected to for a booming startup company — the kind he had done at Pillsbury for nearly 20 years. “Unless you’re in a company that’s doing a lot of transactions, my skill set wasn’t always being put to its best use,” he explains. With his severance from LifeMinders buying him some time to hunt for a job after Cross Media’s acquisition, Mendelson found time to catch up with old colleagues and network with firms “that I knew or had friends at.” He also had the opportunity to attend his son’s basketball games and his daughter’s diving practices. “I was able to make soccer practice on time for the first time,” he admits with a grin. But his free time may be scaled back soon. He’s been tapped by Winston-Salem, N.C.’s Womble Carlyle to head and develop the corporate and technology practice in their Northern Virginia outpost. He plans to start work in February. While Mendelson has his next job in hand, getting the offer was a much different experience than it might have been just a couple of years ago. Associate layoffs have hit nearly every type of firm, and many partners have watched their profits dip. “Two years ago, I’m virtually certain I could have walked into 20 firms in this town and gotten very good offers. Things have changed,” he says. “I have a track record, but it’s still hard for a firm to look at me and want to take a leap.” Womble Carlyle is ready to place its bets on Mendelson, though. “The right job for me today is probably not the same job I would have looked for five, even three, years ago,” he adds. “I haven’t found, to be honest, that my opportunities are limited. But I have found that they’re limited to different firms.”

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