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SAN FRANCISCO — When Renee Jackson began exploring the intersections between social media and the workplace, the young employment lawyer found there wasn’t much being said about the budding legal space.
So Jackson, then an associate at Nixon Peabody, decided to do it herself, writing articles and taking on speaking engagements. Three years ago, she launched the firm’s “Social Media in the Workplace” practice, which she ran until earlier this year. Jackson joined Zynga Inc. in May as employment counsel, but a company spokeswoman declined an interview request.
It makes sense to put young lawyers out front with some tech clients, said Tony Barron, managing partner of Nixon Peabody’s San Francisco office. Though client contact typically comes with experience, when it comes to robotics, mobile apps, social media and wearable tech, younger lawyers may have a better grasp on the businesses of emerging companies and an easier rapport with their executives, he said.
“They may be closer to the subject matter, particularly in technology, than those of us who have been practicing for decades,” Barron said.
Carving out a niche can also be a career changer for associates, making them more visible, more valuable to their firms and opening career opportunities in-house.
“What they’re really looking for and what we want to provide is extreme expertise in areas they’re excited about,” Barron said. “The goal is, of course, to retain them. But the fact is that many, like Renee, build up expertise in a niche area and bring that skill to a client. And that’s a win too.”
But there is also some risk for young lawyers. Associates’ main function is to support the work of partners and their value is measured largely on the number of hours billed to clients. Time spent researching and writing articles to develop a new practice area is a trade-off that can backfire if the idea is a bust, said one Bay Area legal recruiter.
Owen, Wickersham & Erickson associate Lindsey Furtado kept up on the discussions when Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international body that oversees domain names, moved to add descriptive Web address endings such as dot-company and dot-technology­, but he did it on his own time.
When clients needed advice on how to handle the rule changes, the work came to him.
Taking ownership of a new topic is just one way for associates to set themselves apart, Furtado said. Sometimes opportunities fall into a lawyer’s lap or a client’s specialized need lead lawyers to craft a solution that can be replicated for others. Like they say, he quips, “you do a job twice and it’s yours.”
Being located in the Bay Area is helpful to staying on the cutting edge, said Owen Wickersham associate Eric Gelwicks. “Nearly every day you can go out to an event where someone is talking about a new issue, a new problem, a new way of doing things.”
Becoming an expert in an emerging field of law is “a very strategic way to approach” a legal career, said Sari Zimmerman, assistant dean for career and professional development at UC-Hastings College of the Law.
She advises new lawyers to start small: “Within your own practice area, on behalf of your existing clients, what new issues are going to be impacting them? Is it new regulation? Is it a new type of technology that your existing clients are hoping to develop?”
Cutting his own path worked out well for Shawn Foust, a former Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton associate and video game enthusiast. In 2008, Foust launched a video game practice group at Sheppard Mullin. “If I was going to have a long-term future [in law], in my opinion, I had to define myself in some way, or leverage some sort of new opportunity,” Foust said.
Foust left Sheppard Mullin a few years later and went to work for his former client, gaming startup Booyah, in a joint business development and general counsel role. Today, he’s vice president of Quark Games. It’s a career path made possible by his initiative at Sheppard Mullin. His clients started asking him “more business questions than legal questions,” which led to the realization that “I loved the business side and I liked the legal side,” he said.
For Haim Zaltzman at Latham & Watkins and Mika Mayer at Morrison & Foerster, spearheading new practice specialities in Silicon Valley paved their path to partnership.
Zaltzman lateraled in 2008 to Latham’s Bay Area offices from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York. As a third-year associate, he found himself in a tech hotbed, but with debt finance experience.
Eager to work with emerging companies, Zaltzman developed a specialized practice that capitalized on his past experience: debt financing for precash-flow companies. “No one was filling this void, and the market was growing significantly,” he said, estimating the market at about $15 billion.
Zaltzman, who made partner this year, now chairs Latham’s Silicon Valley and San Francisco offices’ finance department. While he also advises on private equity, mergers and acquisitions, and other finance-related transactions, Zaltzman said he’s the only partner at Latham who consistently focuses on debt financing for emerging companies.
Mayer, a former patent agent, became a partner at MoFo in 2008. As a new associate in 2002, Mayer said she sought out opportunities to work with Thomas Ciotti, who led the firm’s biotech patent group. After her repeated entreaties, he approached her to help with intellectual property due diligence for an investor.
Finding that they’d developed a unique approach, in 2004, the two cofounded MoFo’s Venture Intellectual Property, or VIP, practice group.
“We weren’t just pointing to problems, we weren’t just trying to kill deals,” she said. “We were really trying to help the VC folks understand how the IP risks correlated to the business risks and trying to fix them.”
Today, her practice includes patent prosecution and portfolio planning, but IP due diligence makes up about 50 percent of her work, a proportion that’s been as high as 80 percent during flush periods for the venture community.
She still holds the firm record—six years—as the quickest lawyer to make partner. Forging a new practice area “changed everything,” Mayer said. “It literally changed everything.”
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