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Help wanted: Lawyers familiar with internet law

Robert Goldfield Business Journal Staff Writer

The recruitment requests steadily flow into Linda Green Pierce's office. Local law firms and companies want her to find them lawyers with expertise serving internet clients.

Over the course of about a year, those requests have sharply increased to represent a third of the placements made by her firm, Northwest Legal Search Inc. It would probably grow to occupy all of the recruitment firm's time, except for one thing, she said. There aren't enough qualified candidates to go around.

Information technology is the hot sector of law, and internet issues are a major component of that sector, she said. Sometimes the requirement is for patent lawyers who can deal with the intellectual property concerns inherent in many internet cases. Other times the demand can be met by well-rounded business lawyers with background in technology and internet issues.

"It's new territory," Green Pierce said of internet law. Demand is high for whatever expertise can be said to exist in such a young field because "everything is being licensed, ruled upon and determined as it's happening."

With competition for internet lawyers so intense, law firms pursuing lots of internet business have turned to both recruiting and internal training to produce in-house expertise.

Internal recruiting is never any problem, said Ben Kaminash, a member of Ater Wynne LLC's emerging-growth practice. Serving internet clients is a sexy new area of law, and plenty of Ater Wynne's existing roster, including litigators, would like to get in on the action, said Kaminash, who's training himself in internet affairs.

External recruiting generates more problems, he said, adding that two key members of Ater Wynne's group were recruited from California.

Law firms in Silicon Valley, home to so many technology lawyers, pay far more than Portland firms. As a result, firms vying for candidates need to stretch their pay rates, but the lawyers they recruit also need to accept pay cuts.

"I took a 50 percent cut in pay to come here, so people do make the quality-of-life decision," Kaminash said.

Meanwhile, Ater Wynne has had to implement an incentive-based compensation program for all its associates to help keep existing lawyers from feeling cheated when a highly-compensated recruit arrives.

Generally the Portland firms don't drag recruits away from their prior employers, Kaminash said.

Individuals decide for themselves that they would like relocating to Portland, then look for the best fit they can find here.

"You wait until you find someone really interested in coming to Portland," agreed Neil Nathanson, of the Portland office of Perkins Coie. After all, "it isn't the center of internet law."

Besides battling among themselves and against higher-paying geographical markets, Portland law firms are losing internet lawyers to internet companies.

The notion of lawyers departing their firms to work in the private sector, particularly for corporate clients they have long served, is historically common. But internet lawyers are answering that siren call much more frequently, as the voices they hear are suddenly much sweeter.

"The companies, for the first time, can outbid law firms for lawyers by offering stock options, something that hasn't realistically existed before," said Jere Webb, head of the e-business law group at Stoel Rives LLP.

The lawyers have to pick employers with good prospects, but if they do, their return on stock options far surpasses what they can expect in compensation from a law firm, he said.

Stock options presumably played a role in Leslie Wallis' decision to leave Stoel Rives. She became general counsel at Mercata Inc., the consumer products e-tailing company created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Webb said. Not long afterward, Wallis hired away another Stoel Rives lawyer to assist her.

Copyright 2000 American City Business Journals Inc.