University of Maine alumnus Jeff Johnson gave a lecture titled “From UMaine to a Global Law Practice: Funding Opportunity in a Changing World” on April 28 at the Foster Center for Student Innovation. Johnson gave advice on understanding business law relevant to startup companies, a field in which he has over 19 years of experience.
Johnson is a partner at WilmerHale in Boston, a law firm with over 1,000 lawyers and 12 offices worldwide. He graduated from the University of Maine with a bachelor’s in surveying engineering and a master’s in spatial information science and engineering. He then went on to receive his J.D. from Stanford Law.
Johnson specializes in legal matters regarding intellectual property, development, software, data, financial and manufacturing and distribution of hardware. He has represented corporations such as Alcatel-Lucent, Oxford Instruments and Benu Networks.
After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1998, Johnson went to work at a firm in New York City. Johnson soon found that many of his co-workers there were not excited about the companies they were representing, leading him to move on to Boston.
Now that he is at WilmerHale, Johnson describes the work he does with several of his clients as “fun.” His educational background in surveying engineering gave him insight into technology startups that many lawyers do not have.
Johnson likes working with startups for several reasons. For one, startups often do not have an in-house lawyer, allowing him to fill that role. Johnson says that startups allow him to extend his client base because of their strong networking base, which is less common in the competitive nature of law firms
Large law firms may have more flexibility with startups that do not have the capital to pay for their legal services, according to Johnson. He reasoned that the large firms can afford to take risks, such as deferring a startup’s legal fees until the company can afford it.
Johnson highlighted both common mistakes and the successful business practices of startups he has worked with. He did not shy away from his own mistakes, which he believes have helped him learn along the way.
Several problems can arise in startups with multiple founders, according to Johnson’s lecture, such as the possibility of founders dropping out of the project. The best way to combat concerns over founders dropping out is to be careful whom one chooses as a partner in a startup venture.
An issue Johnson stressed was intellectual property and the possibility of consultants or former founders claiming the rights to certain ideas. He said it is easier to deal with what ideas came from who at the beginning of the process, because if the startup is a success, it is likely that anyone involved will claim intellectual property rights. He also mentioned that anything that comes from university staff can be considered to be owned by the university, prompting the question, “How am I using my university resources?”
Consultation of one’s teammates and lawyers was also a major talking point of Johnson’s lecture. Every word of a document is crucial, according to Johnson and consultation with lawyers can save a company from disaster. He mentioned one instance in which a CEO signed a document without consulting his counsel. The document had a clause that sunk the company.
Johnson cited an MIT media article that suggested ways to find opportunities, stating that he had often observed these qualities in other lawyers who were having success. One of these suggestions involved the niches lawyers can fill; if a lot of people are doing the same kind of work it will be harder to find opportunities in those niches, according to Johnson.
Johnson then suggested not just networking, but contributing to that network, stating that more people will be willing to help you if you are doing a good job helping them. On top of that he suggested professionals be geographically flexible and polite to their staff.