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Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: A Note To Those Tech Pros Who Aren't Driving Jack

Ever consider specializing in the law? Almost every major and minor tech decision of our time has a phalanx of lawyers behind it. The profession could use a few good men and women with the tech chops to make a difference.

So you want to learn more about the hottest tech skills in order to put your career on the fast track, mentor one of your children or junior colleagues, or figure out where you may need to do some heavy-duty recruiting in the year ahead.

If you go by the latest numbers compiled by consultants Robert Half Technology, you'll gravitate toward the usual suspects: software and Web development, data warehousing, project management, application architecture, and network security administration--some of the tech specialties expected to command above average salary increases in 2007. But if you're keeping up with current tech events and trends, you may consider a wholly different career path, albeit one that wends through all of the above vocations and many more: the legal profession.

Lawyers, for better and worse, sit at the center of almost every monumentally large and obscurely small tech decision of our time, whether it involves intellectual property, antitrust, mergers and acquisitions, regulatory compliance, policy-making and governance, supplier RFPs and contracts, privacy, data protection, or labor. By one estimate, organizations spend as much as 10% of their IT budgets on just the regulatory compliance aspect--on the related information security, storage, archiving, data and content management, and disaster recovery investments. Who's dictating those many billions of dollars in IT spending? Lawyers.

In the area of patents, copyrights, trademarks, and other intellectual property--the legal pursuits that may require the deepest technical chops--billions of dollars are changing hands by the month. For an example of how complex (over the top?) the tech patent wrangling has become, consider the lawsuit filed last week in which IBM claims that is violating five IBM patents that cover most ("if not all," according to one IBM official) of e-commerce. It takes a lawyer's precision, not to mention cojones, to make the case that one company has cornered the market on e-commerce processes, especially when everyone from Amazon itself to holding companies like Cendant are suing and countersuing to protect their similar and overlapping e-commerce patents. When the dust settles, who will have the last laugh? Lawyers.

Internet law has become an industry unto itself. The American Society of International Law, in a news release last week highlighting its recent seminar on the Internet, touches on a range of subjects, including the Council of Europe's Cybercrime Convention; recent rulings of the World Intellectual Property Organization; U.N. efforts to oversee Internet governance; and "transnational Internet cases that are challenging current legal frameworks," such as Google's censorship activities in China, France's assertion of jurisdiction over Yahoo, and U.S. attempts to regulate online gambling and bulk e-mail. Yum. One can only imagine the billable hours in the making.

If you hadn't guessed, not all this Information Age lawyering is productive work. When it comes to compliance and intellectual property in particular, a lot of it is the productivity-sucking, economic-hamstringing variety for which lawyers are infamous.

But there's plenty of vital, honorable work to go around for those who understand IT and not just the legalese--in negotiating outsourcing and other service contracts, striking (legitimate) licensing agreements and joint ventures, shoring up bad IT organizational practices, managing risk, protecting trade secrets and talent, etc. If you've got the energy, aptitude, and resources for three years of legal study and a career on the front lines of IT deal-making and decision-making, a lucrative profession awaits.

In a previous column, I quoted one IT exec frustrated with the demands of regulatory compliance and corporate governance. "I'm not driving jack. I'm being driven," he said. "We're all being driven by lawyers."

For those so inclined, perhaps it's time to hop into the driver's seat.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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