New Media Law: In House and In the Trenches

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…in-house counsel need experts who can assist us with specific questions. We do not need services that are a mile-wide and an inch deep.

Over the last year that I have been an in-house attorney at a tech start-up in Silicon Valley, I have had more exposure to social media law and compliance issues than all the years I worked in law firms combined.

The bottleneck is that the law firm business model is designed for clients who can afford law firm fees, which most start-ups, frankly, cannot. A small fraction of those clients’ needs are cutting-edge legal issues. Thus, the exposure to novel issues for law firm attorneys – even in aggregate – will never amount to the experience in-house lawyers get at innovative businesses.

Although in-house counsel are not the first hire a tech start-up might make, solo practitioners and more affordable small firms become a key part of the tech start-up culture. And in my experience, it seems that an in-house attorney becomes integral to the start-up team’s fabric pretty early on.

So what can outside legal consultants do to be helpful to in-house counsel at the forefront of cutting-edge legal issues? Here are three suggestions:

1. Develop niche practices that cater to specific legal issues

It is no longer helpful to be a lawyer in “technology”. Focus your consulting – in-house counsel need experts who can assist us with specific questions. We do not need services that are a mile-wide and an inch deep. You’ll get far more business if you can offer prowess in open-source licensing issues or Software As a Service contracts.

2. Create forums for in-house attorneys to share their stories with each other

Many of the vanguard attorneys are in-house counsel at start-ups. Rather than featuring big law attorneys on panels at CLEs and conferences, anecdotes and lessons will probably be more interesting if conference organizers featured the attorneys on the frontline, rather than those who are experiencing the issues second hand.

3. Partner with start-ups

Most of your start-up clients can’t afford law firms rates. Figure out what interesting issues your in-house clientele are facing, and offer to research and find answers to those questions cheap (or even for free!). That way, your start-up clients get law firm expertise at a price they can afford, and you can subsequently promote yourself as the avant-garde attorney your larger clients need – and for which they are probably willing to pay big firm fees. This is also a great way to use law clerks and summer interns.

Don’t get me wrong: there is a place for big law firms in the legal ecosystem. But on a day-to-day basis, I would argue that start-ups and their in-house counsel are the individuals paving the legal infrastructure for new media law. And the best thing law firms can do is help foster legal innovation with in-house attorneys who are in the trenches with the growing number of inspired start-ups.
 

[Debbie Rosenbaum is Corporate Counsel for Thismoment, Inc., a cloud-based marketing software start-up based in San Francisco. Debbie has her JD/MBA from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. Debbie tweets at @rosenbaum_tm and more info on her can be found at debbierosenbaum.com.

JD Supra's In-House Perspective series provides in-house counsel a platform upon which to share their views and thought leadership on issues of the day, including industry news and legal developments, relationships with outside counsel, and law practice matters. To participate in the series, email news@jdsupra.com.]