Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2006

Profiles in the Law
William R. Pierznik: Walking on a Ledge
By Cliff Collins

At Stoel Rives, Pierznik says he found his niche. "The bug that bit me was working with small startups. I really have admiration for people who can walk on a ledge...I love that entrepreneurial spirit"

Being a sports agent seemed the ideal job to William R. Pierznik after college, uncertain of what direction he might take but sure he liked sports.

After graduating from Haverford College in his native state of Pennsylvania, Pierznik asked his cousin, 7-foot-1-inch ex-Portland Trail Blazer Tom Piotrowski, for advice. He introduced Pierznik to his former agent, veteran Steve Kauffman, who represents NBA and professional European basketball players.

Pierznik, who had played basketball for Haverford, interned with Kauffman for the summer. Watching Kauffman and his business partner, both lawyers, run a sports agency inspired Pierznik to enter law school at Temple University in Philadelphia because, he says, most sports agents are attorneys.

After Pierznik’s first year at Temple, Kauffman moved his firm from Philadelphia to Malibu, and offered Pierznik the chance to work for him and live in a guest house. Kauffman even threw in the use of a car that had belonged to Julius "Dr. J" Erving, a former Kauffman client.

The lure of living by the sea and representing NBA players seemed glamorous, and the 6-foot-4-inch Pierznik says: "I jumped at the chance. It was a dream come true." He transferred to UCLA and continued in law school, while working full time for Kauffman Sports Management Group. Pierznik admits not concentrating on grades, although he did well in school anyway.

But after about a year of working for the agency, his enthusiasm waned. The agency handled endorsement and contract deals for mostly journeymen players, and "NBA contracts are so locked in now" that he felt like most of his time was spent as the players’ personal assistant, he says. "It was a great experience and fun, but not what I wanted to do the rest of my life." So he quit the agency before his third year of law school.

Pierznik got his J.D. and passed the bar at the height of the boom in the high-tech industry, and firms were grabbing up law graduates from large schools such as UCLA. Cooley Godward in Palo Alto hired him, where he became part of the firm’s busy technology transactions practice group. He represented clients ranging from Fortune 100 public companies to private startup entities. As part of the firm, he did a stint at Cisco Systems Inc., which he says, "gives you the ins and outs on a daily basis."

Meanwhile, Pierznik had met Mary Costantino, a medical student, while both were at UCLA, and they married. When they searched for a place to spend her residency, the couple fell in love with Portland. Stoel Rives hired Pierznik, who pitched himself as a tech lawyer. He was impressed that, even though Oregon’s economy was faltering, "Stoel still had tech stuff going."

Pierznik wasted no time becoming part of his new community. Besides joining trade groups related to his practice, he got involved in community work that fit his interests. He volunteered marketing and communications for Oregon Stadium Campaign, a nonprofit group attempting to bring Major League Baseball to Portland. A runner, he captained a team on the 2004 Hood to Coast Relay. And he coached Franklin High School students studying constitutional history.

At Stoel Rives, he found his niche. "The bug that bit me was working with small startups," says Pierznik. "I really have admiration for people who can walk on a ledge," sinking everything they have financially into the risk of launching a company. "I love that entrepreneurial spirit."

In February, Pierznik did some ledge walking of his own: He decided to leave Stoel Rives and open his own firm, the Alto Law Group in downtown Portland, to focus on helping emerging companies. "It just got to the point where I need to do my own thing," he explains. "I was up for partner this year and thought, if I’m going to do something, I need to do it now."

With his specialty in technology licensing, Pierznik set up an office downtown with an assistant and a part-time bookkeeper. He had brought clients to Stoel Rives from his time with Cooley Godward, and some he had at Stoel Rives are retaining him in his own practice. He perceived a market need in Portland for cost-effective services to handle day-to-day matters that startups can’t afford to receive from big firms. Once the companies get bigger, "I would refer that work" to the larger firms, he says.

Bob Wiggins, a client of Pierznik’s and a former partner at Stoel Rives who is a Lake Oswego venture capitalist, says Pierznik "doesn’t have the overhead associated with a large firm," but his background and experience fit "very well with early-stage companies."

Pierznik was the first member of his family to go to college. He says his parents are excited about his activities, but, at the same time, had to accept that he was the son who "moved to California and never came back."

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2006 Cliff Collins

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