Attorney Enrico Schaefer brings a knowledge of the technical side of the Internet to his law firm in order to track down online pirates, scandal-mongers and rogue websites. Photo by Robert Downes.
Some people thought that attorney Enrico Schaefer was making a bad career decision when he launched a practice in Internet law in 2005.
They were so wrong. Because today, Internet legal issues have exploded to include everything from online defamation that can wreck your reputation, to the theft of your website’s domain name or on-line infringement of your intellectual property, such as trademarks, copyrights and patents.
At a time when everyone is connected, an online attack can literally destroy your career or business and live on forever in cyberspace unless you can find an expert like Schaefer to take down a harmful webpage.
“Today, it doesn’t seem so revolutionary, but back in 2005 people said being a global technology lawyer based in Traverse City was a crazy idea and would never work,” he recalls of his career choice. “I was told that no one would ever hire an attorney over the Internet; and people wondered, why would you share your expertise for free by blogging it on the Internet? These things were considered pretty far out, but today everyone googles to find out how to solve their problem, and that’s where we come in. The vast majority of our business is not only outside of Traverse City and the state of Michigan, but all over the world.”
From modest beginnings as a one-man office, today, Schaefer has two partners, his brother Mark Clark, and Brian Hall. Their staff at Traverse Legal, PLC, receives an average of 240 prospective client inquiries per month. In addition to Traverse City, they have offices in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, with other office openings planned in the next six months.
And that doesn’t include their network of partnering law firms in many other countries. “China, India and the United Kingdom tend to drive a lot of business our way as well,” Schaefer says. “Those tend to be high-tech areas.”
Nor does it include the sheer excitement of working in what is the Wild West of legal issues on the Internet, prowled by bad guys with web servers and the highly-specialized attorneys who must hunt them down online.
“I’m probably one of the few lawyers who loves my job, but I deal with cool people and fascinating issues,” Schaefer says.
THE IDEA ECONOMY
Blessed with a leonine head of hair that any movie star would envy, Schaefer is quick with a smile and has the energy and enthusiasm of a man who is exploring a new world of possibilities. He and his wife Nan have three sons and divide their time between homes in Traverse City and Glen Arbor.
His Traverse Legal, PLC firm occupies the sub-floor of one of the former cottages at the Grand Traverse Commons. The forward-looking firm went ‘paperless’ from the get-go in order to be eco-friendly, and judging by the smiles on the faces of its staffers, Traverse Legal looks like a pleasant place to work.
Equal parts attorney, cybersleuth, and tech nerd, Schaefer, 47, is in the vanguard of the ‘idea economy’ that is reshaping America. And being at the forefront of one of the hottest fields of law has its rewards.
“There are only about two dozen of us globally who do what we do above and beyond the pretenders,” he says. “So what percentage of the global market do I need to succeed with this kind of practice? Only a fraction of 1%.”
Schaefer had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. “The market for Internet law really exploded and came to us,” he says.
But back in his college days, graduating from the Detroit College of Law in 1989, the Internet was still mostly a theoretical concept, virtually unknown outside of military circles and Silicon Valley.
Schaefer grew up on the east side of De troit, where his youthful passion was sailing on the Great Lakes. “I followed my wife up here in ‘93,” he recalls. “She was a teacher in Dearborn and had summers off, so she waited tables in Leelanau County in the ‘80s. I grew up sailing, and had never been up north in Michigan in the summer.
“I literally had just met her, and came up to visit while she was living in a one-room, 8-by-12 cabin on a 30-acre parcel with no running water, and I never left -- we were engaged 20 days later.”
The couple also fell in love with Northern Michigan and got married in Northport.
In an act of love that few husbands would even consider, Enrico also took Nan’s last name to carry on her family name. “She’s one of seven sisters, so her family line was likely coming to an end,” he notes.
Soon after, he got involved in the ‘Net during its earliest days.
“After Nan and I got married, I had two friends from Albion College who wanted to start an Internet company back in 1994 at the beginning of the Internet,” he recalls. “One had a background in hardware and the other in software. I became the president and general counsel to help run things. So I began writing code and ended up getting a de facto Ph.D in the Internet on the ground, learning everything there was to know about it.”
Later, while working for another firm in the region, Schaefer had a revelation that his technical knowledge could be useful in starting his own law firm that would be niche-oriented and global in its reach.
But even Schaefer had no idea back then as to how fast his firm would grow, or if it would even succeed.
“When I first started in 2005, my theory was that I would specialize in Internet law and technical issues in Traverse City and blog my expertise in the hope that people from all over the state would contact me,” he says.
“The first year I had a client or two; the second year a lot more; and by the third year I was hiring people to handle the demand from 25 different countries. It turned out that people were googling their problems and finding my blog posts and articles online. Either they, or their attorney, would contact us and say ‘hey, can you help us out?’” Since few attorneys were up to speed on Internet law -- much less on how to track down web servers and handle the technical side of things -- Schaefer quickly became an expert in demand from clients all over the world.
“We’d get calls from people who’d say ‘someone stole my domain name,’ or ‘someone defamed me on a blog,’ and they wouldn’t know what to do until they found our articles on these subjects.”
Schaefer also resolved to “recreate the practice of law from the ground up,” eschewing ‘legalese’ and the kind of costly run-around that plagues the clients of many law firms.
“Our theory is that once a traditional lawyer gets the client in a fancy conference room and pushes the retainer across the table, that client is toast,” he says. “The firm may know just a little more than they do, but what alternatives do they have?
“Well, the Internet changed all that,” he continues. “So we try to run our business like Google runs their business. We’re customer-service oriented. We give clients a list of 6-10 ‘deliverables,’ we give them a flat-fee price, and let them choose: if we do these 10 things for this price, does that make business sense on a return-on-investment basis?”
Imagine trying to track down and deal with a rogue website that’s slamming your good name or stealing your idea in faraway India, Russia or Africa... Doesn’t Schaefer have to be something of a cyber detective?
“Absolutely,” he says. “The value we bring to the table is we understand the Internet governance, the history of its governance, how the domain name service works, how to track things, and how to identify people.
“We understand the technical side of the Internet. We get lawyers all the time on the other side of problems who are working for mega, silk-stocking law; but once you start working with them, you realize they don’t have even a basic understanding of how the Internet works.
“So what is Internet law? Traditional legal problems that occur on the Internet and require back-end technical knowledge.
“The other thing is there are special laws that govern the Internet. The Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act which protects domain names which are trademark protected; the Can-Spam Act -- there are all these laws that are Internet-specific that drive a lot of our business. These are new laws that we understand which most attorneys never even encounter.”
If all of the above sounds a bit over your head, rest assured, there’s much more to Internet law and its issues -- enough to fill a hefty book.
But often, handling a client’s problem comes down to simply writing a ‘cease and desist’ style email and knowing where to send it.
“Let’s say someone has posted a defamatory article about our client on a website, and let’s say the web hosting company is in Africa,” Schaefer says. “And that hosting company has a Terms-of-Service posting on their site that says we don’t tolerate defamatory statements or things like child pornography. We would then write a letter for our client, noting that this item online is defamatory, and have it removed.”
Similar threat letters and take-down notices can handle trademark and copyright problems, avoiding the need to take a case to court. But if and when court action is necessary, Schaefer and his firm are prepared to partner with law firms in other countries to do battle on a transgressor’s home turf.
PRO BONO, TOO
Closer to home, you’ll find Schaefer and Traverse Legal involved in pro bono (free legal service) work with local nonprofit organizations, such as TART Trails and the Traverse City Film Festival. They also perform trademark registrations and brand protections for 47 firms in Northern Michigan, including the likes of the National Cherry Festival, M-22, Right Brain Brewery, Yen Yoga and Trigger Boxing.
“We like to do pro bono work for the really cool people and companies in the region because we like what they do and want to give back to the community.”
Ironically, that local close-to-home connection runs completely opposite to what Traverse Legal is doing online with its global customers.
“It used to be that clients felt secure having an attorney who lived down the block,” Schaefer says. “Now, they feel secure having an attorney who’s written an article about their problem, no matter where he or she is from... The reality is that clients want answers, not lawyer-speak or disclaimers. They want business solutions and to real advice about how to proceed.”