Monday, December 08, 2008

My Pedestrian Rant

I’ve been working in downtown Seattle for a year now, but I continue to be struck by how bad Seattle pedestrians are. They dutifully wait for the “walk” light to change to green before crossing even one-way streets that are free of traffic. Conversely, they’ll often follow, blindly and cow-like, when a more independently-minded soul decides to take a traffic-free moment to cross the street against the light.

Finally, there’s the sidewalk herding and milling about. I can walk almost anywhere in Manhattan, as quickly as I like, on sidewalks narrower and more crowded than here in Seattle. People get with the program – sidewalks are for walking, and if someone needs to make a phone call, talk to a friend, or wolf down a hotdog, they’ll stand off to the side. Here in the Northwest? People will stop abruptly mid-sidewalk and stare doe-eyed into space. They’ll talk, yell, spin around, windowshop and wait for buses, all where god intended that city people in a hurry should have an unimpeded place to walk. Perhaps instead of banning grocery bags and Styrofoam takeout containers, our city fathers’ energies could be better spent on educating our clueless pedestrians on how to properly use the public byways.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Back in NYC

I slipped into Manhattan late last night; I'm speaking this evening at the New York County Lawyers' Association on social networking and legal business development. Sure, it's a diversion from my usual M&A-related trips to NYC, but it's an age of expanding horizons, right? Event is 6:00 - 9:00 tonight at 14 Vesey Street, downtown.

M&A in this Toxic Environment

Must-read post from the Deal Professor on the complexion of dealmaking today, and what kind of stuff is likely to work (if anything): Exchange offers, vulture investing, etc.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Corporate Dealmaking in the Ruins

I moderated a panel on “extreme dealmaking” at last week’s Corporate Dealmaker Forum in New York – I don’t know that there has been a period in living memory of more “extreme” M&A than we’ve seen in the last few months. From Bear Stearns' shotgun marriage to JPMorgan to the host of bank failures and other hastily-arranged weekend tie-ups, very large enterprises have been rushing into deals at breakneck speed.

Just as surely as the process has witnessed staggering amounts of equity destruction, it will certainly offer some fantastic opportunities coming out of the other side. The remaining healthy banks think so, as they attempt to fatten up cheaply on the remains of their less-risk-averse brethren. The tussle between Citi and Wells Fargo over Wachovia is only the latest chapter. We’ll see more activity, even if things get darker, as those with the resources to do so start laying the groundwork for better days in the future.

After the conference I did an interview on ABC News Now about the economy and the election – we polled 20 of Avvo’s top-rated bankruptcy lawyers to get their thought on this topic, and the results were certainly intriguing. Check out the video.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Corporate Dealmaker Conference

I'll be moderating a panel on "extreme dealmaking" at next week's Corporate Dealmaker forum in NYC. I've also signed up for twitter - find me at @corporatetool on twitter.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rolling Heads

Former McAfee GC Kent Roberts - rogue options backdating agent, or poor sap thrown under the wheels of the corporate bus? God knows we in-house counsel are ready and willing to take the blame for things our companies want to do or not do - within the bounds of the law, of course. But stand trial with jail time on the line? Methinks not.

Was Roberts - whose federal court trial was to start yesterday - left twisting in the wind by McAfee? The company has suddenly found a bunch of emails that apparently may exonerate Roberts. As for the company and the attorneys who missed this discovery the first time around? "Heads have to roll" - that's the word from U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

More on Google's EULA

PC World ran a comprehensive piece yesterday (including some analysis from yours truly) on the quirks of Google's terms of service and how the company claims a license to a whole bunch of user content across multiple products (Chrome, Picasa, Blogger, etc.).

Some people have wondered why I think Google won't use this license claim in a more affirmative fashion - as the argument goes, what's to stop Google from taking advantage of some particularly valuable piece of content that gets posted to Blogger or Picasa? I mean, what if the movie version of Corporate Tool is a global blockbuster - how can I be sure that Google isn't going to capitalize on my success?

Two reasons: First, Google's primary concern with having a license is to avoid operational or legal problems in running its site. It doesn't want to have to worry about copyright clearance or the like when making changes to its sites or products. Why does this matter? Because there is a fundamental difference in the strength of the company's claim between this "defensive" use and any use of the claim proactively to establish IP rights.

Secondly - and related to the business judgment that would make Google think twice before using its license claim proactively - Google is a multi-billion-dollar behemoth that makes money hand over fist, at unbelievable margins, from its advertising sales. Do you really think they'll see a viable business opportunity in pursuing a shaky-at-best licensing claim to your beach photos?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Overreaching Contracts

Credit card companies, telecom operators, website publishers and software developers are all familiar with the need for standard, easily-applied agreements that customers sign up to by default when using the service.

While these agreements come in many names and forms ("shrink-wrap" for packaged software, "click-wrap" for downloaded software or software-as-a-service, "End User License Agreement," "Terms of Service," "Terms of Use" or "Customer Service Agreement" for websites or telecom providers) they all have one thing in common - they are contracts of adhesion, meaning the end user is stuck with them if they want to use the service.

There's nothing wrong with this per se - some form of agreement needs to surround these services, and such terms obviously can't be negotiated individually with every user. However, as today's kerfuffle over the terms of service for Google's new Chrome web browser shows, a company's lawyers need to pay attention to what these terms say and whether they are fair in the context of a contract of adhesion.

Why? For starters, while most anything goes in a fully-negotiated agreement, courts will quickly find a contract of adhesion unconscionable if the terms are overreaching. After all, the consumer has no other choice but to vote with their feet (and sometimes they don't even have that choice). The Washington Supreme Court recently decided a case (see Groklaw for a terrific discussion) that offers a classic look at the far reaches of unconscionability - an AT&T customer service agreement that, in addition to requiring arbitration of disputes (usually OK, even in adhesive contracts), also barred class actions, required all proceedings to stay secret, shortened the statute of limitations to bring actions, and limited consumer rights to sue for attorney's fees, while giving AT&T the right to do so (this last point wouldn't fly even in a fully negotiated contract in many states, including CA and WA).

While the Google lawyers apparently were just a little sloppy in applying terms from other services to Chrome, AT&T's lawyers must have just felt compelled to make their terms as one-sided as possible.

The problem is that this kind of overreaching has its costs. If you're AT&T, the only terms above that really make much difference are the arbitration clause and the class action waiver. The rest of the stuff is noise. However, it's so blatantly one-sided that a court couldn't help but trash all of these clauses; indeed, AT&T is lucky the entire agreement wasn't stuffed.

What would have happened if they had kept the agreement scrupulously fair on the procedural side but had retained the important limitations (arbitration and class action waiver)? I say there's a fair chance the court would have upheld their agreement. Instead, their eagerness to craft a lopsided agreement cost them what they really cared about. Nitwits.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Business Performance with Integrity

WSJ law blog has a great interview today with Ben Heineman (former long-time GE general counsel), summarizing some of the key points in Heineman's new book, "High Performance with High Integrity." Lots of good points about the role of the GC, particularly the need to be neither a naysayer or a yesman.

I've pointed out before the tendency of some corporate leaders to create a culture where dissent or bad news is punished, and how much that hurts the organization. As Heineman notes, the GC has to have "the credibility, independence and guts to speak up, even in the heat of battle, about integrity issues." Too true. But organizations also need to foster cultures where such independence is encouraged (or at a minimum, tolerated) amongst as many levels of management as possible.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Microsoft and Yahoo - Saving Face All Around

According to reports today, Microsoft is floating an idea to buy Yahoo's search biz and take a "minority passive stake" in the company. Please. This is nothing more than a fig leaf to cover Microsoft's renewal of acquisition discussions.

Look, it would have made things difficult for Microsoft to simply come out and said, after two weeks of avowed denials, that they still want to buy Yahoo. And it would be similarly hard for Yahoo to say they realized they'd overplayed their hand and they're really amenable to a deal at $33 or $34 per share. So, they can both engage in this barely-plausible cover story, spend a little time "examining" the pros and cons on an asset sale + investment, before concluding that it really makes the most sense for MSFT to simply acquire YHOO outright.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Clearwire, Sprint, etc.

Congrats to my former colleagues at Clearwire for FINALLY getting the Wimax JV done with Sprint. Initial indications are that it was worth the wait - it's a full-blown, fully-funded deal that removes a huge measure of risk from Clearwire's business and allows it to roll out nationally. What's more, Clearwire - despite only owning 27% of the new JV -gets to run the whole thing.

You know the cable guys and Google insisted on Clearwire running the show for more reasons than just concern over potential conflicts between Wimax and Sprint's cellular service. One look at Sprint's operational track record over the last couple of years would have been all it took to make that decision.


It's been highly amusing watching Yahoo step in it over the Microsoft proposal - I just hope they aren't deluding themselves into thinking that anything less than $6 - $8 of their current share price is due to speculation the deal will come back on.

Will it? Ballmer has taken some heat for how this was handled (one of his folks reportedly called MSFT's handling of last weekend's events "amateur hour" - ouch!), but if this was a tactical play by the mercurial Ballmer it may have been a good one. Yang and Decker have been falling over themselves to say they'd still be happy to deal, and have all but admitted Yahoo would take $33 a share.

So - there's still a decent shot this deal gets done. The price differential just isn't that great. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to see it get done for a buck or two less than MSFT's last offer of $33 when Yahoo comes back hat in hand to revive the deal.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Confidently Handling Legal Matters

People ask me what, exactly, we're doing here at Avvo. It's really quite simple - despite the stakes involved, consumers have precious little in the way of resources when it comes to getting legal guidance. The #1 source for consumer legal information is the Yellow Pages!

We're trying to change that by pulling more legal information and guidance together in one place than has ever been done before. For example:

Looking for an Albany NY criminal defense lawyer, Eliot Spitzer?

Need an Orange County bankruptcy attorney now that your ARM has reset?

How about getting some free answers on what do about your first DUI?

Central to Avvo is the mixing together of public records data and user-generated content to create rich profiles of attorneys. Those profiles, along with other resources like Avvo Answers, are designed to help consumers handle their legal matters with more confidence. I'd love to hear comments and suggestions on how we can do an even better job with this.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Google Breathes a Sigh of Relief

I suspect that when we see the identity of bidders in the FCC's 700 MHz auction (Auction 73), we'll see that Google was the last bidder on the package of licenses making up the C block covering all 50 states.

The last bid on that package, at about $4.7B - which came in about a week ago - was enough to push it over the reserve price and ensure that the so-called "open access" requirements Google lobbied for will apply to whoever wins the licenses. However, bids on the individual licenses comprising the package have been increasing in the interim, and have now exceeded the package price.

These bids are, without a doubt, coming from the incumbant telecoms. Google, not wanting to get into the capital-intensive, low-margin, highly-competitive network operator business, can now sit back, secure in knowing that it has acheived its lobbying end via a shill bidding strategy. It's an open question whether the "open access" requirements are truly meaningful - they are in many ways the final battle of yesterday's war, and far more toothless than what Google originally wanted. Still, you've got to admire the execution on Google's strategy here.

Microsoft's Yahoo! Bear Hug

A tremendous amount has been written about Microsoft's bid for Yahoo!, so just a quick note on my perspective:

- I absolutely love the bold approach. The level of the bid really only gives Yahoo management two options: Sell to MSFT or find a white knight. Convincing shareholders that independence is the best route to unlocking value would be a laughable exercise.

- Watching the flailing about by the tech media and Yahoo insiders for potential alternatives to MSFT has been highly amusing. Points for creativity, but none of these fantastical imaginings will come to pass.

- Google needs to watch itself. While it has vastly expanded its lobbying resources in the last few years, Google doesn't always show a lot of maturity. As a near-monopolist in search and internet advertising markets, it needs to be careful about making overstated objections to this merger that will come back to haunt it when it goes to make a big acquisition down the road.

- Microsoft has a lot of work to do. Getting this deal past the regulators will be no mean feat, particularly in Europe. However, the bigger issue will come in dealing with merger integration on a scale Microsoft has zero experience with. We'll want to check back in a few years on how this one works out.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Diligence Stories

Absolutely terrific post by Equity Private regarding an undercover diligence mission. I agree completely that there is absolutely no reason to ever give a buyer anything resembling this kind of unfettered access. It must be controlled, time-limited and escorted - and preferably kept entirely off-site.

Note to EP - the problem with non-signed employee agreements you ran across is probably a non-issue, as standard employee non-competes are completely unenforceable in California.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

More on ROWE

Cali and Jody’s ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) blog – which hits dead-on so many of the inanities of our clock and face-time obsessed workplace culture – has a recent post regarding attorney billable hours, and the fact that clients are driving the push to rid the delivery of legal services from this archaic model.

Now, I’m sure most of these clients aren’t living the ROWE ideal, but at least there is a recognition that the results provided by legal services are not always – or even most of the time – linked to the time it takes to produce them. I spent less than three years working in a billable hours environment before entering the corporate world, but I hated it from the first. Ironically, part of the problem was the clients themselves, who had no problem paying for endless hours spent summarizing depositions or twiddling one’s thumbs in a courtroom status conference but would balk at time billed for conferences between the firm’s attorneys, to say nothing of paying on a sliding scale based on results.

On the Limits of Analysis

Ken Klee over at Corporate Dealmaker penned a brief review of a recent HBR article titled "Innovation Killers: How financial tools destroy your capacity to do new things." As Ken points out, any critique of the limitations of DCF analysis is highly applicable to dealmaking.

I've mentioned before my somewhat jaundiced view toward financial analysis and the reverence to which it is held in every big company I've worked with. While DCF analysis has its place, its limitations absolutely must be recognized.

As Ken points out, one problem is that fact that most DCF models are built on status quo assumptions (or corporate growth projections) that don't account for the strategic and competitive dimension. I would add that there is also the simple problem of garbage-in, garbage-out: the less you know about what's likely to happen (as is the case with new lines of business and transformational transactions), the less reliable the output of your DCF model becomes. The problem is that instead of acknowledging this limitation, many embrace the modeled output as Holy Writ. Besides being a false data crutch, it squeezes out consideration of other "softer" factors (like assumed competitive ramifications, or non-quantifiable synergies)that are every bit as worthy of consideration.