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The perseverance of lawyers and technology executives trying to raise sunken stock options is almost admirable. Every time a company launches a new effort to put value back into underwater stock options, Eric Jensen’s phone lights up. Jensen, a Cooley Godward partner, is fielding calls from technology executives who read in recent months about Siebel Systems Inc.’s twist on stock option exchange programs. “I got three calls one day,” Jensen said, and the calls have come in from tech companies all over the country. “That symbolizes there are a lot of folks thinking about it.” Since the stock market tanked and options stopped making people millionaires overnight, they’re no longer a hot topic for lawyers or for employees. But as Jensen points out, executives haven’t stopped trying to dream up ways to pay people with something other than cash, which for many companies is pretty tight right now. And stock options won’t always be worthless, Jensen said, nor will they become the private domain of fat-cat executives, he said. “The Valley has always spread [the wealth] around,” Jensen said. “If you ask most people in Silicon Valley, they may feel like the market is down, and people aren’t optimistic, but do they think the stock is never going to go up?” Jensen answered his own question with a firm “no.” Siebel simply paid its employees for their stock options and then put the options back into the pool to be granted again later. Jensen said it’s an intriguing idea. But it’s not for every company, because it costs a lot of money, carries some accounting risks, and it did bring some headaches to Siebel. The company’s stock, for example, took a beating because of the plan, and the company got sued over it. Still, Jensen said a handful of clients have had him studying Siebel’s buy-back plan to determine if some or part of it carries universal appeal. At some companies, Jensen said, fewer employees are doing more of the work because of cutbacks but executives can’t necessarily pay them more money. “The interest is clearly in keeping people motivated,” Jensen said, adding that he’s often told: “Let’s make sure that stock options are not a complete zero.”

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