A conversation with Carla Meninsky
WN: You worked at Electronic Arts and Liberate Technologies... I’m familiar with EA, but what did Liberate Technologies do?
CM: Liberate made settop boxes for different cable systems that integrated a web browser with cable programming and TV.
WN: What inspired you to leave engineering and go into law?
CM: After managing a group of engineers to deliver a new 3D graphics library (XGL) for Sun, I started a computer contracting business. Microsoft had just gotten sued for not paying contractors benefits and the dynamics changed in the valley for contractors. So, instead of getting out of contracting like everyone else, I decided to incorporate my consulting business.
Other contractors came to work for me. Business was booming. I would do graphics projects that were outside a company’s main business, mostly hardware startups, like Kubota, 3Dfx, Cirrus Logic, primarily acting as a systems architect. Several times I would come in to a company and their code would be a mess, the people who wrote it had left and the remaining engineers were still trying to use it for the next generation thing. I would rewrite the code underneath them and add the faster, better graphics to support the new hardware. Sometimes I just worked directly with the hardware engineers who were designing new hardware. I went to EA to start up a 3D graphics lab for them. EA wanted to do 3D Road Rash. I also did a terrain system for a WWII game for them. On several occasions I tried to get funding or venture capital to do my own thing, but no one was interested without a finished product and I could only go so far myself—by that time games were big productions. I think the WWII game at EA had over 30 people working on it.
At EA I met Carolyn Wales, who was this totally brilliant person. Carolyn and I decided to join forces doing our own style of video games. Again, we tried for venture capital and were told that no one would fund “untried” women gamers without someone who knew something about business (the insinuation was we needed men to be legitimate). Insulted and disgusted, Carolyn knew someone who had been granted a launch title for the PS2 and was working with a publisher, who desperately needed game programmers. We agreed to contract with them so we could get PS2 experience. BIG MISTAKE. What a disaster. It turned out Carolyn’s friend had hired another programmer without telling us AND, as we soon discovered, that person had stolen code from another company which he was trying to use for this PS2 game. Carolyn and I weren’t too happy about it. We tried to get them to stop and when that failed, we had no alternative but to leave. Carolyn went to work for Liberate. My business was still thriving, so I took on another couple of jobs and eventually ended up contracting with Liberate.
But you asked how I came to be a lawyer. As owner of a consulting business with employees who were contractors, I negotiated a lot of contracts myself, fairly successfully. I suppose I should have had a lawyer doing this, but since I was so used to doing everything myself, it never occurred to me. But, that experience with the stolen code and negotiating the contract for our games startup, got me thinking, especially since that had not been the first time I had encountered the theft of code or of trade secrets in the valley and had to withdraw. About the same time, one of my ex-bosses got taken away in handcuffs for misappropriating code to start Avant! Then, soon after the PS2 disaster, I ended up suing my neighbor over some trees he cut down in my yard when I had been away for a week at Siggraph. I have to admit I kind of enjoyed the litigation process. I started thinking that getting a law degree could expand my business and maybe be the cred factor that the VC’s were looking for. So, while I was frantically trying to complete a complex Liberate contract, working 24-hour days because I was on a deadline, I took the LSAT, kind of on a whim and did well. Friends of mine who were lawyers tried talking me out of it, but I applied to law schools, more or less on a dare. Then I got in. I still wasn’t sure I was going back to school until the last minute. But I loved law school. For me, it was eye-opening. I only wished I had done it 10 years earlier.
WN: Will you be returning to the states after your year in London? Do you plan to continue to practice law full-time, or do intend to use your degree to pursue other VC opportunties? (Or both?)
CM: I actually enjoy practicing law. I caught the litigation bug in law school—I know this sounds sick, but, to some degree constructing a legal argument based on a set of facts is a lot like designing a video game—It’s all about finding the story behind the story. Maybe I just read a lot of detective stories as a kid. I get to be both logical and creative, and work with people to solve their problems. Before I came to London, I was representing financial institutions in various matters. The financial crisis exposed a huge amount of fraud by individuals that had been going on for years and this presented a whole new set of issues that I wanted to tackle. Which is why I’m here now.
After law school I had a (too brief) fellowship in Munich at the Max Planck Institute where I worked on legal protection for software rights. It made me wish I had taken a year abroad in college. So this is it. I came over here hoping to get a job in London or Europe when I got done, but given the economic climate, I will go where the jobs are.