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Career Story: General Counsel For A Technology Start-Up

General Counsel For A Technology Start-Up

Job Title: General Counsel Of A Start-Up Company

Type of Company: My company makes light-based dermatologic devices (e.g., light-based hair removal, wrinkle removal, etc.) for sale to consumers via well-known retail businesses.

Education: BS, Electrical Engineering, UMass-Lowell •• MBA, Boston University •• JD, Suffolk University Law School (Boston, MA)

Previous Experience: I worked as an electrical engineer for about eight years on radar, communications, and computer projects involving military systems. I then moved on to managing projects that centered on developing and selling desktop and server computers for a few years. Finally, I worked as a patent attorney at a large company, then as a patent attorney for a couple of large law firms in Boston, and most recently as the general counsel (responsible for all legal activity) at a couple of start-up companies in the greater Boston area.

Job Tasks: As General Counsel, I am responsible for all of the company's legal activities. These include writing and negotiating agreements regarding employees, outside contractors, confidential disclosures of sensitive company information to other companies, the business relationship between companies, insurance issues, patent issues, and litigation issues (among others). Many of the employee agreements are relatively straightforward, but agreements governing the ways in which multiple companies work together and that specify all of the obligations and rights of the parties can be much more difficult and may take many months and occasionally years to complete. Our company operates in an environment where competitors are prompt to litigate, especially over patent rights (which protect a company's inventions), so I often advise our engineers how to work around and avoid or minimize exposure to a competitor's patents, challenge the validity of some patents at the U.S. Patent Office and other foreign patent offices, and if necessary defend the company in court. I also write and file patent applications on behalf of my company in the U.S. and foreign patent offices. There have been several occasions where I've been listed as an inventor on the company's patents because I am the one who came up with the inventive idea. Overall, this job involves a combination of legal, business, and technological expertise that takes many years to develop. But the journey continues to be very interesting and intellectually challenging.

Best and Worst Parts of the Job: The best parts of the job are helping a company develop and bring products to the market that never existed before. It is very fulfilling to hear how excited our prospective customers are when they try out our devices during our market testing activities. Being able to participate in engineering, business, and legal activities of a start-up company is also an extremely valuable experience, since you get a sense of what it takes to run a small company and deliver a product to market that has a reasonably good chance of succeeding.

The worst part of working in a small company, regardless of the type of job you do, is that you always have to be careful not to spend money unless it is absolutely necessary, which can be frustrating if you want to research some new materials or technology. As General Counsel, I have to be careful about not spending too much money on outside lawyers, so I usually do most of the legal work myself and only use our outside counsel as absolutely needed. Further, I can't file patent applications to protect our inventions in every country that I would like to because these applications each cost a significant amount of money.

Job Tips: When working with companies that rely heavily on technology, it is very beneficial to have a strong educational background in that or a related technology. If possible, it is also great to have work experience in a technical and/or business capacity before getting into law, because this experience and educational training will serve you well when you advise the executives of the company you work for. As you can imagine, most of the top business executives are very bright people who have substantial business experience, so you need to develop a broad base of technical and business experience in order to properly advise them. During your initial development, it is very important to find a mentor to help guide your learning and advise you on how to progress on your career path.

Additional Thoughts: This job is extremely demanding and has a lot of exposure, so if you do it well, you will be handsomely rewarded (both financially and personally). However, if you are not properly prepared and your advice and actions are ineffectual, you can be quickly replaced with another candidate. The job also requires long hours and a continuing commitment to improve. You will encounter numerous ethical issues where you will have to make difficult choices and walk a path with slippery footing. Notwithstanding the difficulties, this job can be extremely fulfilling personally and financially, so if you are a self-motivated and hard working individual with strong educational capabilities, then jump in and enjoy the ride.

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