Fast Forward

Columbia Law School graduates working at the intersection
of new media technology and the law are helping to reshape the
world of communications

By Ian Daly

Winter 2010

In 1985, during the early days of MTV, when “Careless Whisper” by Wham! dominated Billboard’s top 100 charts and Nintendo released Super Mario Bros., a fresh-faced Columbia Law School graduate named Brad Smith ’84 set off for his first day clerking for Judge Charles Metzner at the Southern District of New York. It would turn out to be a memorable occasion—not just for Smith, but for everyone who caught a glimpse of this redheaded native Wisconsinite ascending the steps with an unwieldy object that, back then, was virtually unheard of within the hallowed halls of Foley Square: a personal computer. “It was a new experience for the courthouse,” Smith recalls. “I’m not sure they knew quite what to make of me.” He used this odd device to draft memos and opinions for the judge. To Smith, the benefits seemed obvious: Here was a tool that could get things done better and faster. Strange looks notwithstanding, the young clerk knew he was on to something. And in short order, his hunch would be proven correct.

On November 20 of that same year, a little company out of Washington called Microsoft launched a product known as “Windows.” Twenty-four years later, that company has grown into one of the most influential in the world.

Even those who snickered at Smith in ’85 would now agree that the personal computer was as important as electricity or the automobile in revolutionizing our world and the way we experience it. It is perhaps not surprising then that Smith’s decision to become an early adaptor led him down a path that resulted in his rising to the position of senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary for the Microsoft Corporation, overseeing attorneys in 44 countries.

“It’s an interesting lesson,” Smith says, looking back. “You always have to think about what you’re about to be branded as—but I think in this case, there was a lot of upside to being branded as someone who was interested in, or knew a lot about, computers.”

Now, Smith manages a staff of roughly 1,000 as the head of Microsoft’s department of legal and corporate affairs. Because Microsoft is such a high-profile company, bringing accordingly high-profile issues to the fore, Smith says he probably has a more public role than many of his contemporaries in the computer industry. These days, he is just as likely to be giving speeches as he is to be overseeing big negotiations. He is also the company’s chief compliance officer and is responsible for the expansion of Microsoft’s philanthropic activities.

Though he wears many hats, Smith says the ability to take a forward-looking approach is the common strain tying together each of his responsibilities at Microsoft.

“A constant feature of my job is the degree to which the law is changing to adapt to the various societal impacts of new technology,” he says. “One lesson I frequently apply is one I learned in my very first semester at Columbia, in the Legal Methods class. The course showed how specific aspects of product liability law changed almost 180 degrees over a 45-year period, influenced in substantial part by the rise of the automobile and modern manufacturing. I find myself talking frequently with our lawyers about the need to focus not just on the law as it exists today, but to anticipate where it is heading. I even find myself illustrating the point with a couple of the cases from that course. I have to admit that I never imagined that when I was a 1L.”

During Smith’s first semester at Morningside Heights, it would have been similarly impossible to predict the tidal wave of changes that would take place over the next quarter-century in new technology, in media, and in how the two intersect. Along with “personal computer,” we have added “internet,” “email,” “cable television,” “Facebook,” and “satellite radio” to our expanded lexicons. But these aren’t just words anymore. They are aspects of our quality of life that have become so quickly and deeply ingrained that most of us can no longer imagine life without them. As the sands shifted, many Law School graduates, like Smith, have found themselves at the precipice of these new ideas—among them, Adam Barea ’99, who works at Google, and Dara Altman ’83, who has taken on an executive role at Sirius XM Radio. While the rest of us reap the benefits of this rapidly changing landscape, these alumni have actually shaped it.

Perhaps no company symbolizes the scope of new technology’s changes, and their attendant improvements to our everyday lives, more than Google. Back in 1996, when a couple of Stanford grad students named Sergey Brin and Larry Page were just getting acquainted, New York City native Adam Barea was entering his first year at the Law School. His timing turned out to be perfect.

Barea’s Law School experience came at a time when much of the world was encountering “the internet” for the first time, and the legal world was scrambling to figure out how to regulate it. Here was an entirely unknown animal—a vast network of information that was growing at a rate of more than 100 percent a year and yet, in the strictest sense of the word, didn’t even exist. In a place with no real geographical representation, just figuring out what belonged to whom was an incalculably
daunting task.

Barea had shown a passion for intellectual property that dated back to childhood. “My mother sometimes teases me because I used to get so upset when people would steal my ideas and claim them as their own,” Barea says. That personality trait translated to a near-obsession, later in life, with the challenge of assigning value and proprietorship to abstract ideas. “What started me down this path was the realization that a single word carries so much meaning,” he recalls. “That’s what I love most about trademarks. I can say ‘McDonald’s’ to you, and there are experiences shared by everyone relating to that one word.”

At the Law School, Barea was already being seduced by the chance to be in the driver’s seat when trademark and copyright laws “established in the brick-and-mortar world” needed to be rewritten to accommodate cyberspace. In 1998, during his third year, Congress passed the single most important piece of legislation related to the internet: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Finally, some questions regarding how copyright laws would be applied on the web were being answered.

After law school, Barea served as a judicial clerk to Maryland District Court Judge Alexander Harvey II 50 before joining Drinker Biddle & Reath’s intellectual property group in Washington, D.C. He then moved to the D.C. offices of Cooley Godward Kronish, where he represented Mozilla, developer of the Firefox browser. In 2007, after four years at Cooley, Barea packed his bags for California and began working in-house at Google.

Right away, Barea’s fascination with the frontiers of IP law would be tested. That March, media giant Viacom sued Google-owned YouTube for damages in excess of $1 billion after more than 160,000 clips of Viacom’s entertainment programming appeared on the free site. It remains one of the most high-profile DMCA cases to date. “Luckily, in 1998,” he says, “[Columbia Law School Professor] Jane Ginsburg spent a week talking to us about this stuff in copyrights class. That gave me an early introduction to something that would play a big role in my job at Google.”

In his current position, Barea’s passion for defending intellectual property combines with his desire to help advance a company he truly respects. He is well aware of the all-powerful, Big Brother reputation Google maintains among some internet users. (Law School professor and telecommunications law expert Tim Wu efficiently summed up this sentiment when he told The New York Times Magazine last year: “To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king.”) But Barea believes first and foremost in Google’s ability to improve the lives of internet users, and he gets an inside look at those efforts on a daily basis. “Because Google is successful, some people think we’re basically like Mister Burns [the greedy old mogul character from The Simpsons],” he says. “But the reality is quite the opposite. Our driving principles are to do good and to make things open. If you’re good to users, users come back.”

While Brad Smith and Adam Barea seem almost destined for tech law positions, Dara Altman landed at the cutting edge of new media as the result of a happy detour from Wall Street securities law. The daughter of one of New York’s most influential theatrical lawyers, Floria Lasky (whose clients included Tennessee Williams and Jerome Robbins), Altman figured that after graduating from Columbia Law School she might someday fill her mother’s sizable shoes. In the meantime, however, she put in her time working on IPOs and mergers and acquisitions. That all changed the day she got a chance to work in the realm of the surreal—as senior counsel at HBO monitoring the compliance between HBO and GE to build a satellite.

“The great thing about being a lawyer is that you realize you can learn anything,” Altman says, laughing. “I had always said I was not good at math, but by the end of my time working on that satellite venture, I was fighting for launch insertion accuracy in our Arianespace launch contract. You realize that everything is a vocabulary to learn.”

Altman learned fast. After HBO, she managed all business and legal affairs for Request Television and then moved on to Discovery Communications, where she oversaw $750 million in programming for the company’s TV networks.

In 2006, Altman’s former boss and then-CEO of XM Satellite Radio called and asked her to join him in a company that was charting new territory in an old medium. She accepted and became XM’s head of legal, business affairs, and public policy. Almost immediately, Altman immersed herself in what ultimately became a successful battle with government regulatory agencies over XM’s plans to merge with Sirius Radio. Now, as chief administrative officer of the satellite radio powerhouse, she’s part of the five-person executive team that reports to Mel Karmazin, the company’s CEO.

“I thought that satellite radio was in the beginning stages, the way premium TV was before it really got going,” Altman says. What most compelled her, though, was the opportunity to transform a medium that many considered to be “old media” into something that, like the internet, was potentially limitless. “What’s fascinating about satellite radio’s potential,” she says, “is that, where radio used to be a one-to-many distribution platform, because of the depth and breadth of the content that we can provide in this generation—which, as everyone writes, is turning into a generation where people want what they want when they want it—we have the unique ability to provide an almost one-to-one solution tailored to individual taste, while still allowing for the marvel of discovery.”

Taking on her new role at XM three years ago meant Altman was headed for a new specialization and, once again, a new vocabulary. “Everybody asks me why I left television,” she says, “because everybody thinks television is so sexy.” Altman, though, couldn’t be happier with her decision. And if the breakneck pace of this new media era has taught us anything, it’s that those doubters—just like the ones who watched a young Brad Smith drag his personal computer up the steps of Foley Square 24 years ago—might just have to rethink what’s sexy.

Ian Daly is a senior writer at Details.

Photographed by Andy Freeberg