Yes, We Need More Lawyers

The growth in high-technology business and regulation is spurring, not surprisingly, parallel demand for technology-savvy lawyers

The practice of high-technology law is one of the fastest growing industries in Washington, propelled by growth in Washington's regulatory agencies and regional technology business.

"There's going to be a rapidly accelerating demand as far out as we can see," said Richard Marks, a lawyer with Dows, Lohnes & Albertson, based in Washington.

The profession "is doing very well... it is very much in a growth mode," said Ellen Kirsh, legal counsel for America Online Inc., Vienna, Va. Eighteen months ago, America Online had no lawyers on board, but now it has 12, she said.

The growing importance of technology law is spurring membership in various tech-law associations, some of which are growing at almost 10 percent per year. For example, the Fairfax, Va., Computer Law Association has seen its membership grow by 33 percent since 1990, to almost 1,500 attorneys, said Barbara Fieser, the association's executive director.

Similarly, the Washington-based Federal Communications Bar Association has grown from 1,700 to 2,500 members, and the American Intellectual Property Law Section has grown from 4,000 members to 9,000 members since 1990. Membership of the communications bar is rising more than 10 percent a year because "communications is such a hot area," as Congress rewrites cable and telecommunications law, and as industry builds the information superhighway, said Paula Friedman, the FCBA's executive director.

Even so, the number of lawyers specializing in high technology remains only a small fraction of the nation's attorneys. The American Bar Association's science and technology division has 3,700 members and its intellectual property section has 11,700 members, far less than the 49,000 members in the business law section and the 59,000 lawyers in the general litigation section.

Members of the technology law associations are scattered across the country, but are concentrated in high-tech areas such as California's Silicon Valley and regulation-rich Washington, said association officials. Among the major firms in Washington are Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge; Tucker, Flyer & Lewis; Hogan & Hartson, and Fenwick & West.

Lawyers won't discuss their firms' revenues, but they can't hide their optimism.

Matching venture capital with high-tech firms, resolving arguments in government contracts, and settling intellectual property disputes are the fastest-growing money-spinners, said Jonathan Cain, a partner in Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge's high-tech group in McLean, Va.

Another factor is the rapid expansion of high-tech companies, who make, buy and sell products, and merge, pair off and split at a dizzying pace. "There's more opportunity in this field because of the growth in high-tech firms," said Kirsh.

Another driver in the trade's growth is the growing complexity of technology law. For example, the Senate's draft telecommunications reform law requires the Federal Communications Commission to promote the deployment of unspecified communications technology once a "substantial majority" of consumers begun using it. "How long can we litigate the difference between a 'substantial majority' and a 'majority'? I'd say a decade," said Marks.

A 1994 telephone-tapping law requires the FCC to adjudicate a legal test, but provides minimal guidance, he said. "That is a test to die for.... We can be very happy," said Marks. The threat of court battles whenever the government awards a contract is another reason for the proliferation of high-tech lawyers, said Virginia Republican Rep. Thomas Davis. A former legal counsel for Planning Research Corp. in McLean, Va., Davis said companies set up legal teams to defend new contract awards from lawsuits filed by rival companies. "You could never rely on the government.... You had to supplement [their legal teams]," he said. In this environment, tech-savvy lawyers earn their fees because they "can help get the deal done that protects the interests of both parties... they can finesse and prevent problems," Kirsh said. Without lawyers, a company can "end up making mistakes and paying prices that are very expensive," she said.

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