Tech Support

How an early fascination with programming led Michael Oliver to computer law

Published in 2017 Maryland Super Lawyers — January 2017

Years ago, Michael Oliver attended what was to be the first live, over-the-internet, video-streaming event in Baltimore. The anticipation in the room was palpable. 

“And it didn’t go smoothly,” Oliver says, laughing. “But the people who were up there working on it were very excited, and I think that was probably the time I realized that—I’m going to be a lawyer, and that’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but those people are excited and clearly see [the potential of technology]. And if there’s a way to help them, I would love to.” 

Which makes sense. Growing up, Oliver saw himself more like the people on the stage than someone who might represent them. 

“I was, and am, a geek,” he says. 

His first experience with computers was in 1977, right before high school. He laughs while recalling RadioShack cassette tapes for storing data and machines like IBM punch decks, the Commodore 64 and TRS-80, or “Trash-80,” as it was known.  

“It wasn’t a very good computer, but you could learn basic [programming]. I tried to program a chess game on it; I did not succeed,” Oliver says. “Lord help me, had the internet been around back then and what I would have done from a hacking perspective. But there really wasn’t much to hack. It was all math—math and chess.”

By twelfth grade, Oliver was teaching in his school’s computer lab, and assumed he’d become a computer engineer. “When people asked, ‘What should I do to make a living?’ the answer was computer science because it was getting big,” he says. “Everybody was a comp sci major, so I wanted to be a computer engineer [instead]. But no one told me that was really just electrical engineering. Once I got to Case [Institute of Technology], the realization set in that I didn’t want to be an electrical engineer.”

Instead, Oliver pursued accounting, but still wrote programs in his spare time, a hobby that would come in handy by the time he came to Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. 

“I was one of the only guys there who had some knowledge [of intellectual property law],” Oliver says, “and they were looking around for associates to give [cases] to. Literally no one wanted them—they were like hot potatoes—so I ended up doing them.”

Oliver remembers his aha moment, in the early ’90s, when he found out about the commercial use of the internet.

“I was like, ‘Well that’s interesting,’” he recalls. “As soon as they did that, I picked up programming again. I went out and bought books on base JAM programming, CGI, Perl, PHP, JavaScript, and started learning all of it. I was doing stuff for friends, some for nonprofits, which I still do, and, by then, around ’93 or ’94, the computer people were starting to have legal problems.” 

Oliver remembers an early case for a client whose competitor accessed a private-file transfer site to access trade secrets. Other early cases involved software development errors, domain transfer and domain trademark infringement. “That was also the go-go years of nutty stuff, like lawyers agreeing to work for free or for stock—the concept in the Web 1.0 economy that lawyers and other service providers needed to be ‘invested’ in their clients,” Oliver recalls. By the Web 2.0 era, he tackled mostly trademark and advertising cases. “It was really the Wild West,” he says.

Throughout, he kept an eye on online bulletin boards “for things like Gopher, RG, old FTP systems, ZMODEM, Kermit—name a service, I’ve been on it,” he says. “I was learning [new] programming mainly to talk and keep up with clients. So if I’m in a room and somebody starts throwing out acronyms, I know what the heck they’re talking about.”

It’s that knowledge that’s enabled Oliver to write some of the software at his firm, which he began in 2013.

“When we started, we had zero [support staff], so I wrote the software to help us with clients,” he says. “I wrote the client intake and engagement letter systems, plus the trust accounting system because I didn’t like the stuff that was out there.”

In his spare time, Oliver has also written e-commerce software and is working on a portfolio management program. While he has previously focused on database programming, Oliver is now shifting to front-end programming and design—what users see and interact with. 

“There’s a series of free courses to learn [front-end programming and design] and, after you do enough of them, they assign you a nonprofit entity that needs a solution and you go develop it,” Oliver says. “My only issue is time.”

Sadly, there’s no app for that.

 


 

Mac v PC: a Geek Weighs In

I come down on Mac.

Mac, in my view, will let you have a technology infrastructure that is lower in cost overall. The hardware is higher cost, but more reliable. The software is very high quality in both camps, but Mac is built on top of UNIX, an OS that long predated Windows, and has a huge open source community keeping it running and secure. It’s not perfect, but my desktops and servers are less likely to be hacked. Macs have drawbacks: the sandboxing and security prevents certain things in document-management systems, for example, that make Windows much more functional. There is way more Windows software than there is Mac native software, but this issue is reducing every year.

– Michael Oliver

 

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