Opening Statements

For Lawyers, the Game Is On

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Guitar Hero World Tour 2008
Activision Publishing Inc.

If you have kids you are trying to wean off of Playstation, Wii or Xbox, don’t leave this article around for them to read. Because a number of successful attorneys are attributing their current accomplishments to the sometimes extreme gaming habits of their youth.

A growing number of leading law firms have founded video game practice groups, and law schools are preparing their students to be conver­sant in this unconventional niche. Trend-tracker NPD Group estimates that U.S. video game revenues, including hardware and PC-based software, topped $18 billion in 2007, a 43 percent increase over 2006. And that was before Wii fever swept the nation. Globally, the market may hit $57 billion by the end of this year, in spite of the sluggish economy, according to DFC Intelligence, a video-game-industry research firm.

“For a while the video game industry flew beneath the radar, but now there are multiple billion-dollar companies,” explains Shawn Foust, who heads the video game practice group at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles. Foust is a self-described lifelong gamer who helped his firm move its video game practice out of the entertainment area and into a multidisciplinary group staffed by attorneys with expertise in labor and employment, copyright infringement, marketing, intellectual property and even taxation.

In some games with virtual worlds, players use real currency to buy virtual assets. How such purchases are taxed is one area of law few imagined five years ago, even those who’ve been up to their eyeballs in joysticks since they were kids. That kind of experience, however, does not hurt.

“I think a solid attorney will have at least some grasp of the product,” Foust concedes. “But you do not need to be a dedicated lifelong gamer. I am, and it helps. In other cases, like labor and employment, you do not need to understand video games.”

Among the law schools offering courses to help their students get up to speed on these issues are those at Southern Methodist and Santa Clara universities. Jim Gatto, intellectual property section leader and head of the virtual world and video game team for Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in McLean, Va., compares these courses to sports management or entertainment studies. While gaming is a growth industry, with global reach, it is still a niche business.

“I do work with a lot of companies who sigh a welcome sigh of relief when you actually know what you are talking about,” says Gatto, whose clients include Activision, maker of his favorite game, Guitar Hero. While Gatto agrees with Foust that these practice groups should be multidisciplinary, he thinks every member of the team should be a gamer, at least to some degree.

And he may already be training the next generation of video game attorneys: Gatto has an 11-year-old daughter whom he calls his “beta tester.” So much for putting down the video game to finish your homework.

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