October 09, 2014
Teaching corporate legal strategy
Posted by David Orozco

For our last guest post, Robert and I would like to share our experiences using the five pathways in the classroom to teach legal strategy to business students. Overall, applying this research in the classroom has been a rewarding experience that has challenged us to improve the framework’s conceptual foundation and demonstrate its relevance in the business world.

When we first experimented using the five pathways in our respective graduate business courses three years ago, we were unsure about how well it might be received. To our relief, the framework was well received from the start. In a recent end of year survey that I give to my MBA students, several of them mentioned that the framework was one of the learning highlights in their required business law course. Various students mentioned that the framework allowed them to view the law in a different way and also helped them appreciate the opportunities and benefits of engaging attorneys to help solve business problems. This is in contrast to the viewpoint, held by some managers, that law is an external, dense and static force that constrains business behavior as opposed to enabling value creation.

Robert and I introduce the framework early in our courses, and then apply it to examples and cases throughout the term. To drive home the framework’s applicability, we created a specific team-based homework assignment (Download HW 1) that asks students to choose a recent news story involving a business law issue that follows the prevention, value or transformation pathway, and to analyze the issue from a law and strategy perspective. The articles that students recently have chosen to analyze include stories about NFL contract negotiations, the FCC’s review of the Comcast Time Warner merger, and Airbnb’s legal fight against the New York Attorney General. These cases provide plenty of material for discussion in class, and serve as potential research topics.

Although the framework has yet to be applied in the context of a law course, we think it could potentially engage law students and attorneys who seek to understand how the law strategically relates to their clients’ business.

Ultimately, we’d like to see the framework applied in diverse learning environments, so we encourage you to make use of the framework and contact us if you have any questions or ideas about how to apply it. If you decide to use the five pathways in your classroom or company, we’d love to hear about your experiences.

We’d like to conclude by extending a warm thanks to The Conglomerate and its readers for allowing us this opportunity to share our ideas related to law and strategy. We’ve greatly enjoyed participating as guest bloggers in such a distinguished collaborative space.

Sincerely,

David and Robert

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October 01, 2014
The Five Pathways in Action
Posted by David Orozco

In this post, which follows our earlier discussion of legal strategy, we’ll offer examples of companies situated within each of the five pathways. As Robert and I mentioned in our article, most companies follow the compliance pathway. Such companies insource legal compliance through their in-house legal department, or they may choose to partner with an external compliance verification service. A firm such as ISN, for example, has built a business handling compliance issues for corporations and their subcontractors. According to the Society of Compliance and Corporate Ethics, compliance is a thriving industry due to the increased legal penalties and regulations that companies face in today’s heightened legal environment.

The avoidance pathway is less frequent, given the high stakes and liability attached to this type of strategy. General Motors may have engaged in avoidance if it misled regulators about its faulty ignition switches. Avoidance issues tend to be costly to deal with, given the loss of trust and enhanced penalties that arise from this behavior.

The more interesting and rare pathways involve prevention, value, and transformation. An interesting and controversial prevention legal strategy involves trademark policing, which, in its most egregious form, devolves into the unethical and legally dubious practice of trademark bullying. For example, Chik-fil-A employs an aggressive strategy that targets large and small companies alike and uses the threat of trademark litigation to prevent anyone from encroaching upon its trademarked brands and brand equity. Setting aside the overreaching and legally dubious aspects of this approach, some companies legitimately use a preventive legal strategy that involves cease and desist letters, litigation, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office administrative oppositions to protect the value of their brands and advertising. The Chik-fil-A case serves as a useful reminder, however, that aggressive legal strategies may push the boundaries of ethical behavior, sound legal argument, and public opinion. 

Two recent examples illustrate how employing a legal strategy in the value pathway can generate positive and tangible financial returns. The first instance involves hedge funds investing in a corporate acquisition target and then filing suit in Delaware to challenge the valuation and seek an appraisal from the court. This legal strategy is referred to as appraisal arbitrage. Many of these cases either settle or result in substantially higher prices for the party seeking the appraisal.

Another value strategy that has been in the headlines recently involves tax inversions. Burger King’s recent decision to acquire Canada’s Tim Horton’s will yield business synergies, but it also exploits a legal maneuver allowed under current tax law permitting a company acquiring a foreign entity to reincorporate in the foreign jurisdiction. By reincorporating in Canada, Burger King will effectively lower its tax rate from 35% to 15%.

The last and rarest of legal strategies is transformation. This occurs when the top executives in a corporation integrate law as a core aspect of the firm’s business model to achieve sustainable competitive advantage. Few companies are able to achieve this strategic pathway, and it’s certainly not for everyone. One company that notoriously used law to achieve abnormally large market share and margins in the ticket processing industry was Ticketmaster. The ticket service provider used venue ticket licensing contracts that included several key provisions such as long term renewable exclusivity terms (up to 5 years), and more infamously, fee sharing provisions. Ticketmaster’s business model was, essentially, to take the bad rap for charging exorbitant convenience fees and sharing those fees with the venue, thus contractually locking them into a highly profitable and exclusive business system. It didn’t hurt that Ticketmaster’s pioneering CEO Fred Rosen was a Wall Street attorney turned impresario.

Another company that is showing signs of attempting to pursue a transformative legal strategy is Tesla Motors. Tesla’s recent announcement to offer open licensing terms for its battery and charging station patents illustrates a pioneering mentality that seeks to build a business ecosystem with other auto manufacturers. By doing so, Tesla has made a major legal bet that giving up patent exclusivity rights in the short term will yield long-term competitive advantage by helping to diffuse electric battery and recharging technology. The other legal strategy Tesla has pursued relates to its pioneering distribution model of direct sales to the consumer, bypassing the traditional dealership model established for conventional automobiles. To achieve this direct-to-customer model, Tesla has engaged state regulators to achieve exemptions from state dealership franchise laws. Tesla is clearly strategizing and innovating along many fronts that involve business, technology and law. It remains to be seen, however, whether these legal strategies will offer Tesla a long-term sustainable competitive advantage.

In our next and last post, we’ll discuss our experience teaching the five pathways of legal strategy to business students and how it has been a valuable resource in the classroom. 

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June 20, 2014
The Tricky Business of Tesla’s Patent “Give-Away”
Posted by Ted Sichelman

Last week, Elon Musk—CEO of Tesla Motors—announced on the company’s blog “All Our Patent Are Belong To You” (apparently an homage to a late 90s, ungrammatical internet meme--thx Brian Gividen for pointing this out). Musk claims to adopt an “open source” policy for Tesla’s patents. He elaborates, “Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”

Musk’s move has been hailed widely in the blogosphere as an act of altruism (e.g., here & here). Most of this sentiment has been fairly unreflective. (However, for a certain-to-be prescient analysis that focuses more on the business implications of Musk’s move, see my colleague Orly Lobel’s comments over at Prawfsblawg and Harvard Business Review blog. While I’m quite sympathetic to most of Orly’s observations, as I explain below, I’m quite skeptical of her view that the move will be “good for faster industry innovation.”)

However, like most patent “give-aways,” legal loopholes usually spoil the party. Specifically, Musk stated that “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology” (emphasis added). Of course, “good faith” is a legal term of art large enough to drive a diesel-spewing, 18-wheeler through, much less a zero-emissions Tesla (and this loophole has been roundly noted by a few observant journalists).

Most importantly, is Musk (or his lawyers) expecting that others that use Tesla’s patented technology also make their patents available to Tesla? In more narrow terms, is the result similar to Twitter’s supposed “give-away” that reserved to Twitter the right to sue a competitor if the competitor sued Twitter? Probably so.

Thus, like Twitter, Tesla’s giveaway appears ultimately to boil down to a generalized offer to cross-license with competitors, including potential entrants. As such, Musk’s “give away” is not terribly radical, because cross-licensing in the high-tech and auto industries is fairly commonplace (veritable “keiretsus” in Scott Kieff’s words).

In this regard, as Michael Schallop, an IP attorney recognized, Tesla “wants to encourage others to develop on a common platform, and to the extent that they’re doing so, Tesla is not going to stop that by using its patents offensively.” Indeed, as I have described elsewhere, forcing smaller competitors and potential entrants to cross-license typically provides the incumbent (here, Tesla) a strong advantage, because the incumbent often controls “complementary assets” that provide competitive advantages aside from IP, like robust sales & marketing channels, access to capital, and the like. So, at worst blush, Tesla’s putative altruism could actually keep small, innovative entrants out of the commercial marketplace by effectively forcing them to license their patents to Tesla.

Furthermore, as others have noted, much of the Tesla patent portfolio does not seem particularly strong, nor does it appear to include much of its fundamental technology (which appears to be kept largely as trade secrets). Like IBM’s giveaways of several years ago, one wonders if Tesla found that giving away its patents would yield more revenue by seeding its technology widely—benefiting not only from potential infrastructure effects, but also from the consulting and joint venture dollars that go along with actually explaining to licensees how to implement the technology (specifically by using Tesla’s trade secrets and know-how, which Musk is not divulging). So perhaps Tesla is “patent washing” to offer the proverbial “Trojan horse” (sorry, last cliché) to the larger auto manufacturers (and even lure gullible “anti-patent” engineers to Tesla—see Orly Lobel’s points on these issues).

Or maybe Musk truly thinks he’s being altruistic. Unfortunately, contrary to Musk’s proclamation, “giving away” patents (even putting aside the “good faith” loophole) usually doesn’t mean “open source.” The reality is that Musk’s act is likely to redound much more to his self-interest than society’s.

If Musk were truly concerned about society being able to use Telsa’s technology, he’d specifically agree to the following terms: a royalty-free license to all Tesla current and future patents to any comer in writing with the single exception of maintaining an enforcement right against incumbents or large entrants (but not startups or small entrants) who sue Tesla for infringement. Additionally, Tesla would disclose all of its trade secrets under similar terms and use vigorous efforts codify Tesla’s know-how in so doing.

Of course, Tesla’s “give-away” is quite a ways from this much more thoroughly “open source” approach. As such, I’m not particularly optimistic that Tesla’s current policy will ultimately promote faster innovation or the more rapid adoption of electric vehicles. Perhaps even more unfortunate is the general inability of the press even to spot these issues, much less analyze their ramifications.

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June 16, 2014
The IP Transaction "Gap"
Posted by Ted Sichelman

Thanks to Gordon Smith for inviting me to guest blog—and kudos to Gordon for inviting Michael Burstein, who penned several insightful guest blogs here a few weeks ago—to generate some buzz about the intersection of IP and business law. In my posts over the next two weeks, I’ll follow on Michael’s outstanding foray into the overlap—and as I’ll describe, the “gap”—between IP and business law.

As Michael explained, IP and business law often intersects in three key areas: (1) Law & Entrepreneurship; (2) Markets for Technology; and (3) Innovation and Corporate Performance. Each of these areas has been growing at tremendous rates both in terms of academic study and real-world deals.

As an IP law professor and former founder of a .com-era software company, it’s greatly refreshing to see this newfound interest in IP & business law in the legal academy and practice. Yet, both domains still often suffer from what I term the IP transaction “gap”—namely, the lack of a deep understanding on the part of academics and lawyers of both the “IP of Business” and the “Business of IP.”

In simple terms, business lawyers often fail to appreciate the important details of IP and IP lawyers often fail to understand the business of their clients. As a client, my difficulties stemmed in finding business-savvy lawyers who had a sufficient grasp of IP—particularly the business aspects of IP—to ink the kinds of nuanced licensing, assignment, and acquisition agreements that would suitably account for the structure and risks unique to IP deals. The same sorts of “gaps” between IP and business law pervade law review articles that attempt to tackle this thorny intersection.

Of course, there are notable exceptions among scholars and practitioners alike. For instance—in addition to Michael Burstein—Ashish Arora, Stuart Graham, Richard Gruner, Bronwyn Hall, Jay Kesan, Josh Lerner, and David Teece represent an abbreviated list of some of the scholars with deep knowledge in both fields. Similarly, there are well-known (and lesser-known) attorneys with the same sort of cross-disciplinary aptitude. How do scholars—and practitioners and students—acquire this kind of knowledge? I have a few suggestions.

First, law schools should offer more cross-over courses in IP and business law. For example, at the University of San Diego School of Law, David McGowan and I have focused on expanding our cross-disciplinary IP offerings, which now include IP & Business, IP Strategies, Technology Transfer, and a Technology Entrepreneurship Law Clinic. Based on a survey of IP courses performed by William Mitchell Law School, fewer than 20 law schools offer any IP transactional courses other than IP licensing. Relatedly, law schools should provide certificates or concentrations in IP Transactional Law, as well as more opportunities for joint MBA/JD programs, with a special emphasis on technology-focused business and law.

Second, legal academics writing in IP & business should more frequently read and cite literature from outside the law review canon. In my view, often the best law review articles in IP draw upon scholarly works from business, economics, management, marketing, and related journals. One excellent way to quickly learn about the latest thinking in these fields is to attend conferences in these disciplines, such as the Academy of Management or American Economic Association annual meetings.

In this vein, academics and practitioners alike should cease the frequent practice of pigeon-holing certain issues as “legal” and others as “business,” relegating the latter to the expertise of non-lawyers. At my software company, we eventually fired every lawyer who made such hidebound distinctions. In their place, we hired transactional lawyers who understood our business well—not only our goals in a specific deal, but also overall—and who thus could provide integrated business and legal advice. In order to have this deep level of knowledge, transactional lawyers—especially those who practice in the tech space—need to immerse themselves in the business of their clients. In many situations, this might mean self-educating by reading a client’s business plan and fundraising slides, as well as general business magazines, books, blogs, and journals.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, we in legal academia—in addition to training students to “think like lawyers”—should give today’s transactional law students a head-start on “thinking like businesspeople.” By doing so we can help ensure clients receive the kinds of lawyering they increasingly demand (and need).

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May 22, 2014
IP and Business Law - Some Opening Thoughts
Posted by Michael Burstein

Thanks so much to Gordon Smith and the rest of The Glom for inviting me to guest blog for a couple of weeks.  As Gordon mentioned in his very kind introduction, I’m a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, where I teach Patent Law, Corporations, and Property.  My writing focuses on the intersections between and among these fields.  My view is that the relationships between IP and business law are numerous, complex, and rich.  But in our somewhat specialized sub-disciplines, IP and corporate law scholars don’t often talk to each other.  (There are exceptions, of course, and I’m thrilled to be part of a group that is working to change this – more on that below.)  In my posts over the next two weeks, I’d like to try to jumpstart some new conversations.  I think we have a lot to learn from each other. 

In this first post, I thought I would describe a few themes that bring IP and business law together, as a way of framing the more specific problems that I’ll discuss later in the week.  So to get things started, consider the following:

  • Law and entrepreneurship.  Gordon and others (Brian Broughman, Sean O’Connor, Usha Rodrigues, to name but a few) have done tremendous work over the last several years to explain the particular roles that law plays in shaping the environment for new ventures (and to build an interdisciplinary Law and Entrepreneurship Association of scholars interested in these issues).  In today’s economy, where many such ventures are based on intellectual assets, IP laws have a tremendous impact on the shape and success of those businesses.  To take just a sampling of issues: Ted Sichelman and his collaborators find, in the Berkeley Patent Survey, that entrepreneurs seek often seek patents for reasons unrelated to the classic rationale of preventing misappropriation, such as to better attract venture finance; Colleen Chien reports that the costs of patent “trolling” are disproportionately borne by startups; and federal technology transfer policies determine how innovative ideas move from the laboratory to the marketplace. 
  • Markets for technology.  The classic economic model of innovation is simple and usually involves a lone genius inventing in a garage.  But bringing an innovative product to market requires much more.  It requires linking the idea with capital and development resources for commercialization.  Forging those links requires players to overcome a range of bargaining challenges.  I’ve argued that IP may play a smaller role in overcoming those challenges than we think (so too has Peter Lee, who focuses on tacit knowledge), and continue to explore how transactions in information take place.  But at the same time, we are seeing the rise of robust secondary markets for patents and copyrights, which raise a host of concerns with which corporate scholars are already familiar.  If patents are to be treated as financial assets (as, for example, Michael Risch suggests), what disclosure regime should we apply?  Would a patent market function like a capital market?  Would that be socially desirable?
  • Innovation and corporate performance.  The popular business press is obsessed with innovation.  And rightly so – innovation is a critical driver of corporate performance.  But the organizational drivers of innovative behavior often depend on law.  Dan Burk & Brett McDonnell, and several others, for example, draw on the theory of the firm to explain how the strength and breadth of IP affects firms’ make-or-buy decisions with respect to technology.  Other innovation incentives – prizes, grants, R&D tax credits – have similar impacts on firm behavior, as Lisa Ouellette and Brett Frischmann have begun to describe.  Later in the week, I’ll write about work that I’m doing with Fiona Murray – a management professor at MIT Sloan – about the governance of innovation prizes, a problem that we think has much in common with the governance of innovation process in other institutional settings such as corporations.

I’m really excited to engage with the community here on these and other topics.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and to a fun couple of weeks!

 

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May 12, 2014
Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
Posted by Gordon Smith

I recently finished reading The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School. The book was released in 2010, and I can't believe it has taken me this long to read it. (Concurring Opinions did a symposium on the book in 2011.) Once I started, I found excuses to peel away from other responsibilities so that I could read the book, and I finished it in three days. If you are interested in law and entrepreneurship, this book is essential reading. 

Wu's proposed "Separations Principle" ("the creation of a salutary distance between each of the major functions or layers in the information economy") is nice example of a set of regulations designed to promote the "release of energy" that Darian Ibrahim and I discuss in Law and Entrepreneurial Opportunities. Wu argues that antitrust law alone cannot create an environment in which entrepreneurial action can flourish. He details the costs of monopoly with colorful stories, and shows how government sometimes enables entrepreneurship, but too often plays an abetting role in the supression of entrepreneurship. Of course, not everyone agrees with Wu on the effect of his policy prescription, but Wu has the frame exactly right.

By the way, on Saturday, Wu was the subject of a nice profile in the NYT, highlighting his role in the debates about net neutrality, a term he coined in 2003.

UPDATE: Speaking of net neutrality and entrepreneurship...

And this from today.

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February 27, 2014
The Risks of Finding a Father for Your Child on Craigslist
Posted by Greg Shill

Before returning to the legal boundaries of monetary policy, I wanted to briefly highlight some interesting contract and regulatory issues lurking just beneath the surface of an unusual Kansas state court order declaring a sperm donor to be the legal father of a child, against the wishes of all persons involved.

The facts of the case, decided last month and covered nationally (news accountorder (PDF)), are straightforward and undisputed:

In 2009, a Topeka man answered a Craigslist ad soliciting sperm donations. The ad was placed by a lesbian couple, Jennifer Schreiner and Angela Bauer. The man supplied a donation. Schreiner became pregnant and delivered a baby. Schreiner began receiving Kansas welfare benefits for the child. Seeking child support payments, the state sued the sperm donor to establish paternity. The state argued that the donor—who lacks any relationship with the child or the couple (now estranged) beyond supplying the donation—was the child’s legal father, and therefore must pay child support.

This is where the case gets interesting as a matter of private ordering and trade regulation.

Prior to the donation, all persons involved—the donor and both members of the couple—signed a non-paternity agreement in which the donor waived his parental rights and was released from his parental obligations.

Both mothers opposed the state’s campaign to declare the donor the child's legal father.

Nevertheless, the court granted the state’s paternity petition, which means it can now seek to compel the donor to provide child support. The paternity finding also appears to give the donor a good shot at asserting parental rights (though he seems unlikely to try).

Justifying its decision to ignore the wishes of both parents and the donor, the court intoned:

A parent may not terminate parental rights by contract, however, even when the parties have consented.

Well, maybe this case is a morality tale about those who would seek a father for their child on Craigslist. A warning from a heartland state to those who would selfishly try to contract around their sacred parental obligations. A sign that courts place the welfare of the child above all else. Right?

Haha, of course not!

Kansas law makes it easy to conclusively terminate the parental rights and obligations of sperm donors by contract. Care to guess what you need to do, besides sign a contract?

Pay a doctor.

The court explained:

Through K.S.A. 23-2208(f) [PDF], the Kansas legislature has afforded a woman a statutory vehicle for obtaining semen for [artificial insemination] in a manner that protects her and her child from a later claim of paternity by the donor. Similarly, the legislature has provided a man with a statutory vehicle for donating semen to a woman in a manner that precludes later liability for child support. The limitation on the application of these statutory vehicles, however, is that the semen must be “provided to a licensed physician." [FN1] (emphasis added)

The parties failed to do this.

So, the upshot is that you are free to find a father for your child on Craigslist—and you can even count on the State of Kansas to keep him out of your child’s life in the future—so long as you hire a doctor to do the procedure. Similarly, you can spend your free time fathering children on Craigslist without losing sleep over child support suits—as long as you kick some of the action upstairs to an M.D.

It’s not just Kansas; California, Illinois, and as many as 10 other states [FN2] follow the same law, the Uniform Parentage Act of 1973.

I’m not a family law expert, but it seems to me that a complete list of legitimate and unique public policy concerns that are implicated when a couple and a third-party sperm donor settle their parental obligations by contract looks something like this:

  1. Ensuring that the state can identify who can be held legally responsible for supporting the child.

Nevertheless, let’s assume there are also truly compelling public health reasons to involve a physician in artificial insemination. After speaking with a few doctors, I’m skeptical that this is the case, but even if it were here are ten points that I think are worth considering:

  1. Should a mother who became pregnant by artificial insemination be forced to share parental rights with a stranger who donated sperm simply because she decided not to hire a doctor for the procedure?

  2. Conversely, should the scope of a sperm donor’s rights and responsibilities as a father turn on the decision whether to enlist a doctor to oversee the procedure?

  3. Should the adequacy of a child support scheme turn on whether couples using sperm donors choose to hire a doctor?

  4. There are sound public policy reasons to be concerned about voluntariness in agreements that waive paternity. But if this case is really about ensuring voluntariness, why is enlisting doctors the solution? Establishing consent during contract formation is not some novel problem. Hiring a doctor is a novel solution, but as an evidentiary device it is not very probative.

  5. Hiring doctors for artificial insemination is not cheap. A single attempt through a physician’s office costs about $3,000, and sometimes multiple attempts are necessary. Unsurprisingly, the American Fertility Association (a trade group for the fertility industry) applauded the court’s decision.

  6. This rule looks even more like an attempt to extract rents when you consider that for many people, the price of artificial insemination without physician assistance may be zero.

  7. If the state interest in the use of doctor-assisted artificial insemination is so compelling, maybe the law should simply require it on penalty of criminal sanction. I have never even heard this idea floated, probably because it would be perceived (rightly) as an excessive intrusion on various important freedoms…

  8. yet while they do not provide criminal sanctions, about 13 states are willing to provide unbelievably harsh "family-law sanctions." If a woman declines to hire a doctor, she is placing herself and her child in eternal jeopardy; at any time, the donor or the state can move to declare the donor to be the legal father, which would put the donor in a position to seek full parental rights—even if he is a stranger. (The same is true in reverse re: child support.) It is unsurprising that both mothers opposed the state’s petition.

  9. Although facially neutral, this rule is almost certainly discriminatory in practice. It means that lesbian couples must either hire a doctor or adopt—there is no other way they can safely preclude the donor from being granted parental rights. And of course this is just one of many unofficial taxes gays and lesbians must pay, especially in states like Kansas that do not allow them to marry. It seems to me that there’s a good argument the law should fail rational basis or equal protection review, but I will leave that brief to the con law scholars.

  10. Finally, beyond any constitutional infirmity, this law should serve as a reminder that protectionist regulations—which often take the form of onerous occupational licensing restrictions and NIMBY zoning rules—frequently have regressive distributional consequences, because they tend to favor powerful incumbents. And although probably not the case here, such laws can harm the broader economy as well by stifling innovation.

I welcome your comments. And I hope my doctor friends still talk to me.

* * * *

[FN1] It should be noted that under the letter of the statute as well as a 2007 Kansas Supreme Court decision (PDF) on this issue, the court did not have an obvious alternative to finding for the state. The problem, such as there is one, is with the statute.

[FN2] An accurate count is not possible without doing a full 50-state survey. As I have written about previously, the Uniform Law Commission’s Enactment Status Maps are often unreliable or imprecise (see FNs 163 & 188).

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February 25, 2014
Could Your Holdings Survive the Failure of the NYSE?
Posted by Greg Shill

This morning, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Mt. Gox—until this month the world's leading market for buying and selling Bitcoin—has "disappear[ed]" from the web:

The Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox appeared to be undergoing more convulsions Tuesday [February 25], as its website became unavailable and trading there appeared to have stopped, signaling a new stage in troubles that have dented the image of the virtual currency. . . .

Investors have been unable to withdraw funds from Mt. Gox since the beginning of this month. The exchange has said that a flaw in the bitcoin software allowed transaction records to be altered, potentially making possible fraudulent withdrawals. No allegations have been made of wrongdoing by the exchange, but the potential for theft has raised concern that the exchange wouldn't be able to meet its obligations.

The apparent collapse of Mt. Gox is just the latest shock to hit Bitcoin, the price of which is now off more than 50% from its December 2013 peak:

Coindesk-bpi-chart

For those better acquainted with the dead-tree/dead-president variety of money, Bitcoin is a virtual currency not backed by any government. Rather than being printed or minted by a central bank, Bitcoins are created by a computer algorithm in a process known as "mining" and are stored online or on your computer. They are bought and sold on various exchanges, including until recently Mt. Gox (whose troubles have been reported for a few weeks now).

So, why use Bitcoin—which may well implode (see, e.g., herehere, herehere)—instead of a traditional state-backed currency, which in many ways is clearly superior?

There are many reasons, some of them even lawful. Bitcoins can be regarded as a medium of exchange, an investment, a political statement...or a way of avoiding capital controls and other pesky laws like bans on drug trafficking and human smuggling.

But the criminal potential of Bitcoin is probably overstated. The Chinese have gotten wise to its use for avoiding capital controls. Using Bitcoin for criminal or fraudulent activity would be difficult at scale (PDF). The Walter White method is still far and away the best way to ensure your criminal proceeds retain their value and anonymity.

I don't share the utopian fervor for Bitcoin expressed in tech and libertarian circles (see, e.g., this supposedly non-utopian cri de coeur), but it may have some positive potential as a decentralized and lower-cost electronic payments system. We'll see if that ever gets off the ground.

In the meantime, the Mt. Gox collapse is pretty huge news for Bitcoinland. Unlike the NYSE (the failure of which would be hard even to imagine), Mt. Gox does not benefit from any systemic significance and thus is unlikely to receive a lot of official-sector help. The situation has some early adopters running for the Bitcoin exits, like this leading Bitcoin evangelist.

Despite (because of?) my agnosticism on the currency, I'll be writing more about Bitcoin soon. (Mainly, I wanted to stake a claim to being the first to write about Bitcoin on The Conglomerate.) If your Palo Alto cocktail party can't wait, however, this explainer (PDF) from the ever-impressive Chicago Fed should tide you over.

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October 23, 2012
Chilecon Valley: a Startup Community Ferments in Chile
Posted by Erik Gerding

The latest edition of The Economist has a fascinating article on “Chilecon Valley” that discusses the emergence of a startup community in Chile. The article focuses on a unique program of Startup Chile (a new Chilean governmental body) that gives grants to entrepreneurs in the United States and elsewhere to move to Chile for several months as they work on building their company and developing their technology. The grant recipients are then expected to network with, speak to, and mentor Chilean entrepreneurs.

The article touches on how law can foster or hinder the growth of a startup community, including by liberalizing immigration laws and allowing failed ventures to get a fresh start in bankruptcy.

Chile is making considerable efforts to diversify its economy beyond extractive industries like mining and agriculture. My spouse is co-organizing a fantastic three-day conference in Santiago from November 28 to December 1st that will focus on social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and innovation. The conference includes a fantastic line-up of speakers, including a keynote address by Al Gore, a pitch competition for social entrepreneurship startup companies, and some awesome music, including Devendra Banhart and Denver’s own Devotchka. Several panels will analyze the contribution of law to developing a entrepreneurial ecosystem in Chile.

You can check out my wife’s newly launched blog and website on the Chilean startup community here.

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September 07, 2012
Weekend Reading: A Transactional Genealogy of Scandal
Posted by Erik Gerding

As in a bad horror movie (or a great Rolling Stones song), observers of the current crisis may have been disquieted that one of the central characters in this disaster also played a central role in the Enron era. Is it coincidence that special purpose entities (SPEs) were at the core of both the Enron transactions and many of the structured finance deals that fell part in the Panic of 2007-2008?

Bill Bratton (Penn) and Adam Levitin (Georgetown) think not. Bratton and Levin have a really fine new paper out, A Transactional Genealogy of Scandal, that not only draws deep connections between these two episodes, but also traces back the lineage of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) back to Michael Millken. The paper provides a masterful guided tour of the history of CDOs from the S&L/junk bond era to the innovations of J.P. Morgan through to the Goldman ABACUS deals and the freeze of the asset-backed commercial paper market .

Their account argues that the development of the SPE is the apotheosis of the firm as “nexus of contracts.” These shell companies, after all, are nothing but contracts. This feature, according to Bratton & Levin, allows SPEs to become ideal tools either for deceiving investors or arbitraging financial regulations.

Here is their abstract:

Three scandals have fundamentally reshaped business regulation over the past thirty years: the securities fraud prosecution of Michael Milken in 1988, the Enron implosion of 2001, and the Goldman Sachs “Abacus” enforcement action of 2010. The scandals have always been seen as unrelated. This Article highlights a previously unnoticed transactional affinity tying these scandals together — a deal structure known as the synthetic collateralized debt obligation (“CDO”) involving the use of a special purpose entity (“SPE”). The SPE is a new and widely used form of corporate alter ego designed to undertake transactions for its creator’s accounting and regulatory benefit.

The SPE remains mysterious and poorly understood, despite its use in framing transactions involving trillions of dollars and its prominence in foundational scandals. The traditional corporate alter ego was a subsidiary or affiliate with equity control. The SPE eschews equity control in favor of control through pre-set instructions emanating from transactional documents. In theory, these instructions are complete or very close thereto, making SPEs a real world manifestation of the “nexus of contracts” firm of economic and legal theory. In practice, however, formal designations of separateness do not always stand up under the strain of economic reality.

When coupled with financial disaster, the use of an SPE alter ego can turn even a minor compliance problem into scandal because of the mismatch between the traditional legal model of the firm and the SPE’s economic reality. The standard legal model looks to equity ownership to determine the boundaries of the firm: equity is inside the firm, while contract is outside. Regulatory regimes make inter-firm connections by tracking equity ownership. SPEs escape regulation by funneling inter-firm connections through contracts, rather than equity ownership.

The integration of SPEs into regulatory systems requires a ground-up rethinking of traditional legal models of the firm. A theory is emerging, not from corporate law or financial economics but from accounting principles. Accounting has responded to these scandals by abandoning the equity touchstone in favor of an analysis in which contractual allocations of risk, reward, and control operate as functional equivalents of equity ownership, and approach that redraws the boundaries of the firm. Transaction engineers need to come to terms with this new functional model as it could herald unexpected liability, as Goldman Sachs learned with its Abacus CDO.

The paper should be on the reading list of scholars in securities and financial institution regulation. The historical account also provides a rich source of material for corporate law scholars engaged in the Theory of the Firm literature.

Permalink | Accounting| Bankruptcy| Business Organizations| Corporate Law| Economics| Enron| Finance| Financial Crisis| Financial Institutions| Innovation| Legal History| Legal Scholarship| Securities| Transactional Law| White Collar Crime | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) | Bookmark

January 18, 2012
Teams, Shopping Carts, and Lawyering
Posted by Gordon Smith

In the Crocker Fellows class today, we talked about teams. I have blogged about entrepreneurial teams and teams in the classroom, but the Crocker Fellows Program is built on a particular notion of teams, captured by the famous definition of teams in Katzenbach and Smith (1994): "a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." In our class, the teams of five people comprise a mix of majors, including engineering, computer science, business, life science, graphic design, etc.

Chris Mattson led the discussion, using the Nightline episode on IDEO as an illustration. Here it is:

Does anyone use the IDEO shopping cart? I haven't seen any in the US, but there are reports of similar carts in France. And Chris has seen similar carts in China ... so has this guy. If you are interested in more on IDEO, you might also check out Tom Kelly on Stanford's ecorner.

As for the Crocker Fellows, the teams are still in the "forming" stage (see Tuckman's stages of group development), but they are transitioning quickly into the "storming" phase. While I am eager to see what emerges from these teams, I was asking myself some questions today in my observer status:

  • What is the role of law and lawyers, if any, at this stage in the innovation process?
  • Lawyers work in teams to develop briefs or documents ... is the IDEO process essentially the same as writing an innovative brief or constructing a new deal structure?
  • Could we use teams in this way to teach law? (My classroom teams have a more modest function than the teams we are using in the fellows program.)

No answers, yet, but maybe by the end of the semester I will have some more ideas.

Permalink | Entrepreneurship| Innovation| Law Schools/Lawyering | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) | Bookmark

January 05, 2012
Sunday Scholarship at AALS: Distintermediation & Regulating P2P Lending
Posted by Erik Gerding

On Sunday, January 8th, the AALS Section on Financial Institutions and Consumer Financial Services will be holding a panel discussing featuring an impressive list of papers selected from an annual Call for Papers. The panel will take place from 9 am to 10:45 am in the Marriott Wardman Park in Maryland Suite B.  It is part of a full weekend of programs by the section, including a Saturday lunch speech by Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin.

In advance of that panel, let me showcase the papers one by one. (The Conglomerate is all about emphasizing the scholarly aspects of the AALS Annual Meeting.) Each of the four papers deals with a different set of foundational challenges to the regulation of financial institutions. The first paper I will preview looks at three interrelated problems:

  • Distintermediation;
  • Which regulator should be responsible for consumer/investor protection; and  
  • How to allocate regulatory responsibility generally, when innovative financial services do not fit neatly within traditional regulatory silos.

In many ways, the first challenge – disintermediation -- is an echo (an extremely loud one) of an old problem. Starting over 30 years ago the cozy world of depository banking was rocked first by the rise of rival intermediaries – money market mutual funds, deeper bond markets and more sophisticated structured finance, as well as other elements of shadow banking.

Now scholars are looking at another competitive wave coming from radical disintermediation, in which the web facilitates direct connections between lenders and borrowers. This is the subject of the first paper, Regulating On-line Peer-to-Peer Lending in the Aftermath of Dodd-Frank,  by Eric Chaffee (Univ. of Dayton School of Law) and Geoffrey C. Rapp (Univ. of Toledo College of Law). Eric will be presenting the paper, which is forthcoming in the Washington & Lee Law Review. Andrew Verstein (Yale Law School) will serve as discussant. Andrew has also written a fantastic paper on the same topic, The Misregulation of Person-to-Person Lending, which is forthcoming in the U.C. Davis Law Review.  

Chaffee and Rapp outline the business model and current regulatory treatment of peer-to-peer lending, which includes platforms like Prosper Marketplace and Lending Club. They examine how securities laws govern the investment by lenders and banking law regulates the borrower end. The Dodd-Frank Act required the GAO to look at the regulation of p2p lending, and the GAO responded by formulating two alternatives. The first was continued regulation of investors on p2p sites by the SEC and regulation of borrowers by agencies responsible for consumer financial regulation (i.e. the CFPB). The second is assigning regulation to a unified consumer regulator.

In the end, Chaffee and Rapp argue that regulatory heterogeneity is not bad, but actually the way to go. They argue for an “organic” approach to regulating P2P lending, allowing different regulators to govern different aspects of the business. Here is their abstract:

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act called for a government study of the regulatory options for on-line Peer-to-Peer lending. On-line P2P sites, most notably for-profit sites Prosper.com and LendingClub.com, offer individual “investors” the chance to lend funds to individual “borrowers.” The sites promise lower interest rates for borrowers and high rates of return for investors. In addition to the media attention such sites have generated, they also raise significant regulatory concerns on both the state and federal level. The Government Accountability Office report produced in response to the Dodd-Frank Act failed to make a strong recommendation between two primary regulatory options – a multi-faceted regulatory approach in which different federal and state agencies would exercise authority over different aspects of on-line P2P lending, or a single-regulator approach, in which a single agency (most likely the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) would be given total regulatory control over on-line P2P lending. After discussing the origins of on-line P2P lending, its particular risks, and its place in the broader context of non-commercial lending, this paper argues in favor of a multi-agency regulatory approach for on-line P2P that mirrors the approach used to regulate traditional lending.

Verstein comes out the other way and argues against SEC regulation of P2P lending and for unified regulation of p2p lending by the CFPB. Here is his abstract:

Amid a financial crisis and credit crunch, retail investors are lending a billion dollars over the Internet, on an unsecured basis, to total strangers. Technological and financial innovation allows person-to-person (“P2P”) lending to connect lenders and borrowers in ways never before imagined. However, all is not well with P2P lending. The SEC threatens the entire industry by asserting jurisdiction with a fundamental misunderstanding of P2P lending. This Article illustrates how the SEC has transformed this industry, making P2P lending less safe and more costly than ever, threatening its very existence. The SEC’s misregulation of P2P lending provides an opportunity to theorize about regulation in a rapidly disintermediating world. The Article then proposes a preferable regulatory scheme designed to preserve and discipline P2P lending’s innovative mix of social finance, microlending, and disintermediation. This proposal consists of regulation by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This should be a lively discussion and of interest to our securities law junkies. Disintermediation is of course a topic a challenge for securities regulation generally, as other platforms are linking equity investors and companies seeking capital. Usha has been blogging about Sharespost and friend of the Glom Joan Heminway is working away on disintermediation too, looking at “crowdfunding” from the securities regulation angle (See her working paper here,  see also, among others, Pope )

Permalink | AALS| Finance| Financial Institutions| Innovation| Internet| Investing| Legal Scholarship| Securities| Technology| Web/Tech | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) | Bookmark

December 16, 2011
Educating Today’s Law Students to Be Tomorrow’s Counselors and Gatekeepers
Posted by Marcia Narine

Law schools are under attack. Depending upon the source, between 20-50% of corporate counsel won’t pay for junior associate work at big firms. Practicing lawyers, academics, law students and members of the general public have weighed in publicly and vehemently about the perceived failure of America’s law schools to prepare students for the real world.

Admittedly, before I joined academia a few months ago, I held some of the same views about lack of preparedness. Having worked with law students and new graduates as outside and in house counsel, I was often unimpressed with the level of skills of these well-meaning, very bright new graduates. I didn’t expect them to know the details of every law, but I did want them to know how to research effectively, write clearly, and be able to influence the clients and me.  The first two requirements aren’t too much to expect, and schools have greatly improved here.  But many young attorneys still leave school without the ability to balance different points of view, articulate a position in plain English, and influence others.

To be fair, unlike MBAs, most law students don’t have a lot of work experience, and generally, very little experience in a legal environment before they graduate.  Assuming they know the substantive area of the law, they don’t have any context as to what may be relevant to their clients. 

How can law schools help?

First, regardless of the area in which a student believes s/he wants to specialize, schools should require them to take business associations, tax, and a basic finance or accounting course.  No lawyer can be effective without understanding business, whether s/he wants to focus on mom and pop clients, estate planning, family law, nonprofit, government or corporate law. More important, students have no idea where they will end up after graduation or ten years later.  Trying to learn finance when they already have a job wastes the graduate’s and the employer’s time.

Of course, many law schools already require tax and business organizations courses, but how many of those schools also show students an actual proxy statement or simulate a shareholder’s meeting to provide some real world flavor? Do students really understand what it means to be a fiducuiary?

Second and on a related point, in the core courses, students may not need to draft interrogatories in a basic civil procedure course, but they should at least read a complaint and a motion for summary judgment, and perhaps spend some time making the arguments to their brethren in the classroom on a current case on a docket. No one can learn effectively by simply reading appellate cases. Why not have  students redraft contract clauses? When I co-taught professional responsibility this semester, students simulated client conversations, examined do-it-yourself legal service websites for violations of state law, and wrote client letters so that the work came alive.

When possible, schools should also re-evaluate their core requirements to see if they can add more clinicals (which are admittedly expensive) or labs for negotiation, client consultation or transactional drafting (like my employer UMKC offers). I’m not convinced that law school needs to last for three years, but I am convinced that more of the time needs to be spent marrying the doctrinal and theoretical work to practical skills into the current curriculum.

Third, schools can look to their communities. In addition to using adjuncts to bring practical experience to the classroom, schools, the public and private sector should develop partnerships where students can intern more frequently and easily for school credit in the area of their choice, including nonprofit work, local government, criminal law, in house work and of course, firm work of all sizes.  Current Department of Labor rules unnecessarily complicate internship processes and those rules should change.

This broader range of opportunities will provide students with practical experience, a more realistic idea of the market, and will also help address access to justice issues affecting underserved communities, for example by allowing supervised students to draft by-laws for a 501(c)(3). I’ll leave the discussion of high student loans, misleading career statistics from law schools and the oversupply of lawyers to others who have spoken on these hot topics issues recently.

Fourth, law schools should integrate the cataclysmic changes that the legal profession is undergoing into as many classes as they can. Law professors actually need to learn this as well.  How are we preparing students for the commoditization of legal services through the rise of technology, the calls for de-regulation, outsourcing, and the emerging competition from global firms who can integrate legal and other professional services in ways that the US won’t currently allow?

Finally and most important, what are we teaching students about managing and appreciating risk? While this may not be relevant in every class, it can certainly be part of the discussions in many. Perhaps students will learn more from using a combination of reading law school cases and using the business school case method.

If students don’t understand how to recognize, measure, monitor and mitigate risk, how will they advise their clients? If they plan to work in house, as I did, they serve an additional gatekeeper role and increasingly face SEC investigations and jail terms.  As more general counsels start hiring people directly from law schools, junior lawyers will face these complexities even earlier in their careers. Even if they counsel external clients, understanding risk appetite is essential in an increasingly complex, litigious and regulated world.

When I teach my course on corporate governance, compliance and social responsibility next spring, my students will look at SEC comment letters, critically scrutinize corporate social responsibility reports, read blogs, draft board minutes, dissect legislation, compare international developments and role play as regulators, legislators, board members, labor organizations, NGOs and executives to understand all perspectives and practice influencing each other. Learning what Sarbanes-Oxley or Dodd-Frank says without understanding what it means in practice is useless.

The good news is that more schools are starting to look at those kinds of issues. The Carnegie Model of legal education “supports courses and curricula that integrate three sets of values or ‘apprenticeships’: knowledge, practice and professionalism.” Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is a growing consortium of law schools which recommends “an integrated, three-part curriculum: (1) the teaching of legal doctrine and analysis, which provides the basis for professional growth; (2) introduction to the several facets of practice included under the rubric of lawyering, leading to acting with responsibility for clients; and (3) exploration and assumption of the identity, values and dispositions consonant with the fundamental purposes of the legal profession.”  The University of Miami’s innovative LawWithoutWalls program brings students, academics, entrepreneurs and practitioners from around the world together to examine the fundamental shifts in legal practice and education and develop viable solutions.

The problems facing the legal profession are huge, but not insurmountable. The question is whether more law schools and professors are able to leave their comfort zones, law students are able to think more globally and long term, and the popular press and public are willing to credit those who are already moving in the right direction.  I’m no expert, but as a former consumer of these legal services, I’m ready to do my part.

 

 

 

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May 28, 2011
Tiers of Associates; Tiers for Legal Degrees?
Posted by Erik Gerding

The NY Times added another story this week to the chronicles of changing market for lawyers.  The story detailed how a number of larger firms have created a second tier of associates, one with reduced hours and reduced salary, and removed from the partnership track.  Some firms move this new tier of associates to offices in smaller legal markets where overhead for the firm (and housing for the lawyers) is cheaper. 

The article compared it to outsourcing jobs, but within the country.  The article also quoted Bill Henderson, who has been studying trends in the legal employment market for years.  In many ways, this latest law firm innovation means that the bi-modal distribution of lawyers salaries, which Henderson has studied, now occurs not only between firms but within firms as well. 

Towards the end, the article discusses what the reduced salary and career advancement means when students carry significant debt loads from attending law school.  This article should serve as yet another warning sign for legal education.  (One should note the Times content appetite has created a propensity to string interesting factual developments into ready-made trends.) 

But if this trend does have staying power, it means that the shake-up of the legal services market is not just short-term and cyclical, but lasting and structural. A number of the bloggers on this site and elsewhere have worried that if any law school's tuition, and the debt load of their students, continually outraces the earning prospects of the students, there will be dire consequences for school and graduates.

The tiering of associates has clear parallels in the tiering of law schools.  This hierarchy -- reinforced and made more cutthroat by rankings -- would become more pronounced if the tectonic shifts in compensating legal graduates continue.  If students realize they cannot pay a school's higher tuition, they will stop coming.  Journalists help applicants connect the dots.  And the crisis in the legal profession and in legal education is very good for business for journalists.

Law firms have been innovative in adapting to changed economic circumstances, but law schools less so.  Tighter budgets, more fund-raising, more use of adjuncts, more investment in placement might help law schools.  As might more relevant and creative legal training to prepare students.

But perhaps legal education should make even deeper changes.  If there are tiers in the legal market, would it make sense to have more tiers in the types of legal degrees? We have the beginnings of tiers now, but LLMs are largely limited to tax and foreign students and SJDs to aspiring academics.  The real issue is that the JD may be too long, too much of an investment, and too risky given potential job prospects.  But the next step down -- paralegals -- might be too big a step down.

Developing an intermediate category seems like a natural fit for the changing legal market. My co-blogger Christine has already floated the idea of an intermediate master's degree, which would allow students to exit law school after a year or two of training. 

Another idea, would be to revive the LLB degree, but more in line with the model of England and other countries, which offer law as an undergraduate degree.  This would lower the cost of a legal education.  But it would also come with some downsides.  Family experience tells me that forcing high schoolers to make a professional choice -- particularly to be a lawyer -- at a young age can entail high personal costs.  There is something truly wonderful, albeit luxurious, about an undergraduate liberal arts education. 

But the English model has more flexibility than that of continental countries.  I have one English friend who took (or "read for"or whatever the anglo jargon is) a bachelor's degree  in literature, then took a "conversion course" to enable him to then join an inn of court and become a barrister.

Indeed, there is much U.S. legal education might learn from England, which I think offers the best preparation for being a young lawyer in the world - largely by virtue of the apprenticeship (or pupillage) systems. 

But England's lessons come not only in the quality of legal training.  The tiering may represent, instead of a fusty medieval vestige, a way to offer American legal students different paths to legal practice, at different costs, with different rewards, but also with different risks.  One size does not fit all - whether you are dealing with a financial investment or an educational one.

Update (5/28): Here is a partial reading list of recent scholarship on changes in the legal market, including how these changes are or should be affecting legal education: 

Ribstein, Practicing Theory;

Henderson & Bierman, An Empirical Analysis of Lateral Lawyer Trends;

podcasts from the Iowa Law Review symposium on the future of legal education;

 

 

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May 08, 2010
Who’s xooming who?
Posted by Erik Gerding

My efforts to prepay my summer rent in Berlin have been a fascinating tour of modern payment systems and foreign currency risk. Here’s the scoop: my rent is due in full June 1st. My landlord would like the money early and agreed to pay the transfer fees if I could prepay. One additional complication, I need to use my University’s credit card.

I first tried Paypal – but the transaction got dinged based on a paypal algorithm that tries to detect fraud. Setting up a wire transfer takes time (and further navigating the University bureaucracy) not to mention higher fees than Paypal. I then ran across this alternative for foreign currency transfers: xoom. It worked like a charm, although having taught payment systems once I did carefully read the terms of use to figure out what my recourse would be should the money go into the wrong German account, or should there be no apartment when I arrive in Berlin.

Xoom is just one of a bevy of new payment systems that have emerged in the last several years. Glompetitor Tim Zinnecker has already pointed out the great article in Wired magazine two months ago on the future of payment systems. When I agreed to prepay, I thought the fees I saved would more than offset the time value of money. What I didn’t anticipate was that little ‘ole me would also be subject to foreign currency risk; I guess I need to read Kim Krawiec’s posts over at the Glompetition on the Greek debt crisis on a more regular basis.  In all seriousness, I do feel blessed though that my personal stakes in the foreign currency swings are so trivial (so far) compared to what many in Europe are going through.

Permalink | Businesses of Note| Europe| Finance| Innovation| Internet| Technology | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) | Bookmark

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