While a student at Harvard Law School, Michael Fertik figured he would “probably practice law for some time,” but didn’t know if he’d do it forever. To that end, he recalls, “I was lining myself up to practice appellate law.”
He served as a research assistant to constitutional law expert Larry Tribe and spent his 2L summer at a Washington, D.C., law firm with a large appellate practice. And after graduating in 2005, Fertik clerked for the Sixth Circuit’s chief judge.
But while clerking, Fertik got an idea. “I’d been seeing media reports about what we now call cyberbullying and learned that there was a widespread problem of privacy and digital self-control,” he explains. “It’s not good that you don’t have control over what you look like on the Internet. I felt the problem would get bigger, not smaller, and that solutions would be found in a nexus of technology and law. I had a background in both.”
When his clerkship ended, Fertik decided to forgo appellate law in favor of starting Reputation.com, an online reputation management company. Based in Silicon Valley, Reputation.com has since become an industry leader in the field. Fertik himself has become a frequent media commentator, authoring articles in Harvard Business Review, The Huffington Post, and Newsweek. He also co-wrote the book Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier.
Although Fertik has yet to take a bar exam (“as my mom reminds me,” he quips), his legal background has been an asset to the company, which last summer gained $41 million in venture financing. “I’ve chosen to work in an area of technology where law does matter: libel, copyright, privacy, freedom of speech,” he says. “I can talk to policymakers and lawmakers and the legal academy about privacy.” Fertik adds that the company has spent less money on legal fees over time than it otherwise would have, particularly because several other executives are also lawyers.
Thanks to his legal training, Fertik has been able to handle some the company’s contract review, employment matters, and corporate set-up. “Plus, there’s a certain kind of critical thinking that you acquire or hone in law school through the Socratic method that is also a useful way to think in business,” he says. “Although you can lose yourself in analysis paralysis and in a risk management way of thinking, it’s one of the tools to keep in your toolbox.”
When asked whether he’ll ever practice appellate law as he originally planned, Fertik says, “There are a lot of things about the law that I’d enjoy practicing and would be lucky to practice. I don’t know what the future holds. I certainly would not write it off. I have high regard for what lawyers do.”