Wild Geese: Jennifer Stanley, partner at Fenwick & West LLP, San Francisco
Silicon Valley lawyer helps companies protect their IP, or get permission to use IP from others
Jennifer Stanley: “I represent video game development companies and social media companies, and I’ve had the opportunity to do some work on a movie.”
“The job prospects in Ireland were great: we didn’t move for economic reasons at all, we moved because we wanted adventure.”
With Silicon Valley tech companies flocking to Ireland for its taxes and talent, many young Irish people like Stanley and her software engineer boyfriend, both bitten by the tech bug, went the other way.
“I was interested in intellectual property law and, back then, the convergence between intellectual property, technology and media was just starting,” says the Dubliner. “Moving to the San Francisco Bay area was just very appealing.”
Having taken the California Bar Association exam, job offers flowed. “Coming over here as a foreign lawyer was just no impediment at all,” says Stanley. She accepted a role with specialist Silicon Valley-based tech law firm Fenwick & West. It’s the company that incorporated Apple. Stanley and her now husband had arrived just as dot.com fervour hit its peak.
“We absolutely experienced those heady days,” she recalls. “My husband was working in start-ups back then and all of the things you read like the boardroom chairs being bean bags, with people sitting around in their shorts, was all absolutely true,” says Stanley. “It was so exciting to be there then. We worked really, really hard, but it was great.”
With hundreds of new internet companies founded every week, their stock prices puffed by adding an “e-” or “.com”, it seemed the only way was up. But by 2001, the bubble was deflating apace. Burning through venture capital, some having never made a profit, many dot.coms turned dot-bombs over night.
“It came on fairly suddenly, I suppose, because we went from being insanely busy when we got here to being in a recession within a space of two years.”
Stanley and her husband however remained insulated.
“We absolutely noticed it around the external parts of our lives, but for both of us career-wise, it didn’t have an impact. Thank goodness. I always had a day’s work to do and we were employed the whole time.”
Stanley has remained with Fenwick & West. Since its inception in 1972, the firm has grown with the tech industry around it. Stanley is now a partner in the firm’s technology transaction and intellectual property group and chairs the company’s copyright group.
“My practice focuses on the crossover between media and technology companies,” she says. “I represent video game development companies and social media companies, and I’ve had the opportunity to do some work on a movie.”
The copyright issues affecting her clients are numerous she explains. “The software code that makes a game work, the characters, the visual landscape, the storyline, the music – all of those elements require different intellectual property protection. I help companies protect their IP, or get permission to use IP from third parties and make sure their game is not going to get them into trouble basically.”
While Stanley is well versed in the possible traps, to some entrepreneurs, they’re not so obvious. “Anybody who touches the product, the game or the technology needs to assign all of their rights into the company,” she warns. “If your brother-in-law helped, he needs to enter into an agreement to sign over the stuff – sometimes that’s the kind of thing that just gets forgotten in the early days when everybody is just really excited about an idea. It’s fixable if you catch it early, but painful if you don’t.”
She says reaction to being Irish in the Valley is positive. “I’m extremely proud of being Irish. I don’t think it’s given me any kind of major advantage in terms of getting ahead but it’s definitely a positive thing that is well received.”
The optimism and desire for success in her adopted country is something she values.
“Whether you want to do something at work, at home or at school, often the answer is ‘okay, great, let’s figure out a way to do it’. I’d like to think that’s kind of rubbed off on us,” she says. “But I meet a lot of Irish, including entrepreneurs, both here and in Ireland who are every bit as passionate and ambitious as their US counterparts.”
With two young boys, she says her family returns to Ireland as much as possible. “I still miss Ireland a lot and I think it will probably always be that way for me. Even though we have made our home away from home here in San Francisco, Ireland will always be home to us. We make a point of visiting as often as we can.”
And advice to others following in her footsteps? “If coming to the US to practice is something you’re interested in, then take the bar exam. It’s something you are always going to have in your back pocket. The other piece of advice is to follow your star. Find out what it is you want to do and don’t let anyone tell you that that wouldn’t work for you.”