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MAY 1, 2000


How a Legal Eagle Landed at Findlaw.com

New CEO Steve Robinson talks about his rather radical job change

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The odds of making partner at a law firm are slim these days, so it's understandable that associates leave for dot-coms. But what tempts someone like Steve Robinson to the startup life? Robinson had scaled the pinnacle of his profession as managing partner of the Washington office of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, one of the most prestigious international law firms. Recently, he gave it all up to become the new CEO of Findlaw (www.findlaw.com), which claims to be the top legal site in terms of traffic.

Robinson, 49, who was tapped to bring Findlaw public, has extensive experience in both corporate and international law. He discussed this radical career shift with reporter Stephanie Goldberg. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: How did this come about?
A:
A lawyer I worked with at Cleary had gone to work for Findlaw in the fall of last year. He recruited another lawyer in our office, [who] told me they were looking for a CEO. I had been managing partner of Cleary's Washington office for just about five years. I didn't really want to go to a startup that was just getting off the ground. This seemed like the perfect opportunity. Being a partner in a law firm, I could see the applicability of some of the things Findlaw was starting to introduce.

Q: How did your colleagues react?
A:
At first people were very surprised. I had about the most exciting career one could have as a lawyer. I started out as a mergers and acquisitions financing lawyer. I did defense work of white-collar crime. I represented the government of Kuwait during the Gulf War. I've done international privatizations, securities offerings for large companies, and private placements. I represented the Russians in building the International Space Station. I enjoyed it a lot, but I thought I had at least one more career in me.

Q: That would be No. 3, right?
A:
Right. I was in the Navy for eight years active duty and four in the reserves, and rose to the rank of captain.

Q: How does your compensation compare as a CEO to what you received as a managing partner?
A:
Cleary is one of the most profitable law firms in the world, and Findlaw is a maturing startup. If I didn't have substantial reserves built up, I couldn't do this -- I have a wife and three kids. I gave up a lot by leaving Cleary before I was eligible for retirement. If I make [Findlaw] as successful as I think I can, in the long run it will certainly be worthwhile. But in the near term, it's a lot different. I've contracted for stock options rather than an outright equity stake.

Q: Isn't this something of a culture shock?
A:
[Cleary has] 2,000 employees worldwide, and we have 80 right now. People are on a first-name basis here, and they were at Cleary. It's casual all the time here, and we had dress-casual all last summer at Cleary. One difference is that Cleary's outlook was international while Findlaw's, like many dot-com companies', is domestic.

Q: But there's certainly a big difference in the physical surroundings and the amount of autonomy you have, no?
A:
In a law firm, everyone's there to support the lawyers. You have all the resources you could ever need at your disposal. Here the customers are visiting the Web site, not the offices, so there's not a lot of attention to conference rooms and things like that. I answer my own phone. I pretty much did that at Cleary, even though I had a secretary.

Q: You don't have one now?
A:
No. The founders didn't have one. If I want one, I could certainly have one.

Q: Do you think many of your colleagues in law could adjust to that?
A:
No. When I told people what I was doing, there was a lot of shock.

Q: Had being a law-firm partner had gotten routine?
A:
No. It was the chance to be a CEO and run an entire company. A law firm is much more of a consensus operation. As a CEO, I expect I'll be making more decisions myself.

Q: Tell us a little about Findlaw right now and where you intend to take it.
A:
Traffic growth has increased six-fold over the past year: from 5 million page views a month to 30 million. The staff has increased from 12 to 80 in about the same time frame. We currently offer services and information to law firms, consumers, small businesses, and law businesses. We know we reach a lot of small-firm practitioners, because it's a free alternative to some of the subscription services like Westlaw and Nexis. We know we can help small businesses locate small law firms. That's one area of opportunity we want to look at.

We also host a lot of Web pages for small firms and have a directory that's searchable by type of practice. We're thinking about collaborative efforts such as a "deal room" for transactions and a "litigation room" for lawsuits. Rather than having documents e-mailed back and forth, the documents would be accessible online to the parties. We have some of the basic products already up and running.

Q: Isn't the idea of exchanging documents through a third party troublesome from a security standpoint?
A:
It is doable depending on the level of encryption that people would want. I think most people have become comfortable with using the Internet for the transmission of confidential documents. It's much more like sending something FedEx than it is posting it in a public place. When I was doing deals as a lawyer, it was common to get 14 different versions of a document with notes all over them. You had to spend a lot of time figuring out which version was current. We're also looking at ways businesses can solicit proposals from law firms and make it more efficient for large businesses to find local counsel.

Q. Wouldn't the anonymity of such solicitations [which are usually posted blind] be something of a problem?
A.
That's clearly one of the issues. At some point people do need to know the parties to judge whether they can do [a job]. The matters we envision handling this way are not likely to engender conflicts of interest: You do business in state X but need someone to represent your client in court in state Y. We'd be posting listings in a section of the Web site and charging fees for the service.

We think the market is more likely to be small firms than big ones. When it comes to choosing counsel for an IPO, I don't this is the way people would find one. We're also looking at how to assist larger law firms in hiring personnel, which was the thinking behind our recent acquisition of Infirmation.com, which has a lot of information about salaries, job postings, and what it's like to work in the firm in its "Greedy Associates" bulletin board. We're [also] looking at having in-house headhunters: If you want to change jobs, you'll go to Findlaw rather than calling an agency. This would be another fee-based or revenue-sharing service.

Q: What challenges do you face in taking this company public?
A:
I feel we do have to demonstrate that we're a viable business model going for several years past the IPO and show that we're on a trajectory. We're not going to be profitable Day 1, but there's been a tremendous effort to get traffic to the site, and now we can start capitalizing on that.

Q: What is the timetable for taking this company public?
A:
We have to be cautious because the SEC has been fairly harsh on Internet companies using the media to hype their case for going public. But I'd say we should file sometime in the next six months.

Q: What is going to be your strongest selling point to investors?
A:
Advertisers will certainly continue to be a major revenue stream. The principal attraction will be that we're first among legal Web sites and have locked up the best content and the best services that can be provided.



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