Power Players: Where Technology Meets The Law

Attorney John Yates, 53, originally from Charlotte, NC, couldn’t have imagined that taking a basic computer class as a high school sophomore would lead to a 27-year career in technology law. And he certainly couldn’t have envisioned blogging and Tweeting his way through India earlier this year as he and Jason D’Cruz, a fellow partner from Atlanta law firm Morris, Manning & Martin (MMM), LLP, and the head of the firm’s IndUS group, made a two-week tour of the country.

Visiting Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, India’s “Silicon Valley,” they sought to strengthen the firm’s relationships with Indian technology firms, locate capital streams for U.S. entrepreneurs and identify potential partners for other business ventures. Yates posted updates from his trip on TechDrawl, a video blog site showcasing Southeastern tech companies.

It was a far cry from that high school computer science class in the 1970s.

“I learned some low grade programming and it sparked an interest,” recalls Yates, who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from Duke University in 1978 and 1981, respectively. “But it wasn’t until I visited my sister out in Silicon Valley in 1981 that I began to see what could be done combining the fields of law and technology.”

Now partner-in-charge of MMM’s Technology Practice, Yates is recognized as a pioneer in the now-bustling field, but in 1981, the Southeast was no competition for Silicon Valley. “We had to develop the market for technology legal services in Atlanta,” he says. “Lanier Business Products was one of the first companies to branch out from their traditional market into technology development.”

Lanier, now known as Lanier Worldwide, Inc., was better known for copiers, but in the early to mid-1980s, developed a legal software package. Yates consulted on the project, mostly with regard to intellectual property issues.

“Law was several miles behind technology,” he says. “The main focus was how to apply old law to new technology and that was mostly protection of things like intellectual property, copyrights and patents.”

Yates knew the firm needed to anticipate what would come next. “The second chapter [of creating the technology practice] became developing a body of law around technology and using law and law services to stimulate development of technology,” he says.

Yates employed the “incubator” method that was just beginning to gain traction in the United States in the 1980s.

“We developed a full service firm to serve as an ecosystem for technology development,” he says. “We could take ideas and grow them through startup, financing and perhaps the eventual sale, whether taking a company public or selling to another company. Legal services were included in this plan and delivered in an efficient way. Because of our other connections, we were able to not just advise, but bring our client together with the people they needed, investors or creative partners.

“The growth timeline was supercharged,” he says, “because they didn’t have to use time talking to 10 different people when we can bring the one person they need right to them.”

MMM is now in the forefront of technology legal services, not just in the Southeast but worldwide, having established an office in China in April 2009. Yates oversees a group of 70 people focused on technology issues and remains as energized as ever about the practice he helped establish.

“I wake up every morning excited about what I do,” he says. “We’re constantly expanding and refining our ‘ecosystems’ in order to help our client reach their goals. We’re constantly looking for ways to use the technology out there to move our business forward. I love Georgia and want to increase the state’s stature in the field of technology business development.”

Yates believes the biggest challenge ahead is the potential for a retraction of innovation because of the current financial climate, but says Georgia businesses should not succumb to that temptation. “We have all the right conditions for continued growth,” he says. “There is superb infrastructure, a major airport, good transportation connections, Georgia Tech and great innovation coming out of the university system. We have a lower cost of living and more accommodating weather here than in other parts of the U.S. There is still so much to be done and we must stay proactive.”

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