Lee Gesmer is a founder and partner of Gesmer Updegrove LLP, a Boston-based firm formed in 1986 that focuses on the representation of technology companies and emerging businesses. Lee’s practice focuses on litigation in the areas of business and intellectual property law. He is a former Council member and former Co-Chair of the BBA Intellectual Property Section, as well as the Computer and Internet Law and Business Litigation Committees.
1. What inspired you to take the leap and start your own firm?
My father owned his own business, and I worked for him summers in my teens. He taught me how important it is to work for yourself. He really believed America was the land of opportunity for people willing to take the risk of starting their own businesses. He embedded that idea in me at an impressionable age. When I graduated from law school, my plan was to work for a couple of good firms and get enough experience that I could start my own firm.
I was interested in antitrust in law school and went to a D.C. firm that specialized almost entirely in antitrust litigation. But after a couple of years I became homesick for Boston. After I returned to Boston in the early ‘80s I became aware of what was then called the “microcomputer revolution.” This was back when almost nobody knew who Steve Jobs was, and a “portable computer” was the size of a sewing machine and weighed 30 pounds. I saw that something important was happening and it seemed like the opportunity I was looking for. So I started to get involved in that area of law – we called it “computer law” – and I joined the Boston Computer Society, an influential organization at the time; in fact, when Steve Jobs debuted the Mac, he did so at a BCS event in 1984.
From there I started to meet a lot of people who were becoming involved in the personal computer industry in New England, including a few lawyers. I became more and more convinced that this new industry was an opportunity for a new law firm– almost no one was focusing in this area, and I recognized that we were at an optimal entry point for a firm focused around this new technology. Eventually, two lawyers I’d met (one of whom has since left the firm) decided to form a firm with me. When we started in 1986, there was no other firm in Boston that held itself out as practicing “computer law”. We’ve expanded our practice since 1986, but we’ve always maintained our focus on technology clients.
2. If you were to go back in time to 1986 and tell yourself anything to prepare you for the years ahead, what would it be?
I think that the degree of sheer grit and determination that would be required, the ability to struggle through really challenging times, was something I didn’t recognize in 1986. If I could go back to1986 I’d tell myself: “it’s going to be harder than you think, and you’re going to need a deep commitment in order to succeed. You can’t fold when it gets really hard, and don’t fool yourself, it will get hard.” The firm had very few challenges from 1986 to 2000 – it was mostly clear sailing for those 14 years, with slow, steady growth at first. But in the late ‘90s our clients evolved from software companies to Internet companies along with the Internet bubble. When that bubble crashed in 2000, there was a contraction in our client base. It was a big challenge to adjust to that. It took a deep personal commitment on the part of the firm’s partners to struggle through that period.
In a sense, when the 2008 recession occurred, we were prepared because we’d already been through it once, so it was not as much of a challenge as I think it was for a lot of other firms. We’ve been through two really challenging business contractions – 2000-2002 and 2008 – and having the determination to see the firm through those periods was difficult. I would also tell myself, if I could go back to 1986, “don’t ever assume you have it made.” I mistakenly thought that any challenges would come early in the life of the firm, not after 14 years. I now know there are firms that have shuttered their doors after many decades in business, so you can never take your success for granted.
3. You maintain a personal law blog (www.MassLawBlog.com) – why is it important to you to devote time outside the office to this endeavor? In your opinion, how do personal projects like this shape a leader?
First, let me say that my partner Andy Updegrove maintains a blog (consortiuminfo.org), and I think he is one of the earliest and most prolific bloggers in the nation, as well as a published novelist. So there are two long-time bloggers at our firm.
I started my blog in 2005. I do it not because anybody is asking me to do it – I do it because I like to write. I know that this helps me understand my practice areas far better than what I could accomplish without my blog. I tend to think that you don’t understand something fully until you’ve taught it or written about it. It keeps me up-to-date in my practice area – which is so fast-moving that it’s a constant challenge.
There have been times I’ve been so busy I haven’t written for months, but those periods are rare. I’m always on the lookout for topics that I think I can write about. But there has to be a strong impulse to write on whatever the topic is, whether it’s a case or another legal development – I don’t force the process. At times I’ll go home and knock out a blog post in an evening. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
If you’re going to be a lawyer for decades, there’s a really serious burnout risk. You read a lot in professional journals about burnout in the legal profession. Often, people become bored or complacent, whether they admit it to themselves or not. They lose their enthusiasm and become stale. It’s nice to find a way to recharge your batteries within the profession itself. Finding something that you have real passion for is critical to career longevity. I think that’s a really important part of this job. People who get involved at the BBA get passionate about that, for example, and it serves that purpose; it’s the same with people who do pro bono work. You have to do something for yourself along the way or your career longevity may be at risk. For me, blogging helps fulfill that need.
4. Across the variety of committees and Sections in which you have served at the BBA, what overarching perspective about leadership and the legal community have you gained? What has been important to you to bring to the table?
First off, I have to say that the BBA Council is a very educational experience. The BBA is like a vast machine with an untold number of moving parts reflecting the Massachusetts legal economy, and it takes a long time to put that all together and understand what’s going on. I saw the tremendous commitment that the President, President-elect, and other officers make to the BBA. They have to have a deep passion for what they’re doing, and I really respect that. When you become a Council member, you get exposed to so many issues within the profession from a top-down vantage point, which is something that few lawyers get to see…it’s an invaluable experience.
Being a committee or section co-chair at the BBA required me to do the same thing as when I’m writing a blog: I had to figure out current topics that would be of interest to lawyers in that practice area, and then figure out who could speak on those topics. My co-chair and I had to find those people and persuade them to come to an event, which was no small task. Honestly, there are times when it’s harder to do that than it is to write a blog. You can’t have a brownbag lunch program just because a case was decided. So finding worthy themes, topics, and speakers was often difficult. Having the President of the BBA ask you how many programs you’re planning for the upcoming year brings home the reality that you have to make your committee or section viable, and worthwhile to the BBA as a whole. It was important to me to try to bring a work ethic of creativity and leadership to everything I did with the BBA.