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Tech law makes comeback five years after market tanked

|Written By Mark Bourrie

OTTAWA -- The NASDAQ index is still one-third below its 2001 high and large tech firms like Nortel Inc. continue to struggle for survival, but technology law is making a comeback, industry insiders say.

Technology firms are selling products and there

LaBarge Weinstein LLP, which nurtured startup tech companies and launched some major IPOs in the 1990s, has moved from its downtown offices in the Xerox building to a new headquarters in Kanata's Silicon Valley North.

Eighteen months ago, LaBarge Weinstein created a new licensing group within its practice to handle intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, and software licensing.

And earlier this year, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP announced the absorption of four-year-old Marlay & Ford LLP, a highly regarded boutique technology law firm.

Instead of bringing Marlay & Ford's lawyers into Gowlings' downtown home, Gowlings re-christened Marlay & Ford's suburban office as Gowlings Kanata.

Kanata is home to many of the major high-tech employers in the Ottawa area, such as Nortel, Alcatel, Cisco Systems, HP, Dell Canada, March Networks, Ubiquity Software, Norpak, and Mitel. The high-tech industry clusters along March Road (where Ford & Marlay has its offices), in the Kanata North Business Park, and along Eagleson Road, in the Kanata South Business Park.

"Marlay & Ford is a first-class firm known for their entrepreneurial, tech-friendly approach and their commitment to their clients," said Scott Jolliffe, Gowlings' national managing partner. "Together we see this as an excellent opportunity to strengthen our relationship with the technology community in Ottawa."

Bob Ford, a co-founder of Marlay & Ford and now a partner with Gowlings, says the merger is a sign that the tech law business has emerged from its 2001 meltdown.

"The tech market is quite a bit better, comparing it to 2002 and 2003," Ford says. "We sit here in the March Networks building on the seventh floor and I'm overlooking the Alcatel parking lot, and it has grown quite a bit in the last year or so.

"The big tech and the little tech, both are doing quite well. Companies are actually selling product again," he said. There's quite a bit of movement in the law firms. It's a pretty interesting time."

Ford and Tom Marlay founded their firm in 2002. Both were in-house counsel for technology companies. Two other lawyers, from Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, joined Ford & Marlay over the next few years.

Big firms like Oslers and Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP continue to add more tech law business, Ford says. It helps that the market for their services has started to firm up. At the height of the tech boom, IP and tech lawyers with science backgrounds were in such demand that the big law firms were recruiting them in their first weeks in law school.

"There is startup business again," Ford says. "There are some interesting companies that have started, or are being started, in different technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), a number of software applications that are new, some pretty exciting startups coming out.

"The big companies are also selling technologies so the Alcatels, the Nortels are doing deals. There are companies like Mossaid and Certicom that really have become [strong] in the business of licensing technologies and patents. It's a pretty good market out here of technology players. Most law firms have a mix of clients: old firms, startups, big and small," he says.

 How much technical expertise does it take to work in this area?

"There are different places where lawyers work," Ford says. "One of the key places where you have to have technology skills is in the intellectual property area ? protecting the core intellectual property assets of the company."

And there are very few law firms that have that skill and can fill that niche.

"Part of our attraction to Gowlings was its long history of being an intellectual property firm," says Ford.

"There are 180 professionals in Gowlings offices across the city, and a lot of them are involved in intellectual property. There's deep expertise in all kinds of intellectual property."

The new Kanata office has four full-time lawyers and a revolving group of about eight from Gowlings' downtown office who use the office for client meetings and specialized issues.

"The future is tied to a few things," Ford says. "If we continue to develop innovative products and solutions that are needed on a world scale, Kanata will be just fine, there will be a lot of great technology companies. If the stock markets continue to be healthy and people are investing in technology, that's good for Kanata as well.

"In terms of the legal piece of that, for law firms, you can't just play in the space for a while and be good at it. Law firms have to invest real resources. We've seen that with the Gowlings' merger in Kanata, for example.

You really have to service these clients the way they want to be serviced. They're not the run-of-the-mill corporate client; they have very specialized needs.

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