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So you wanna work in a startup?

A few years ago, there was an ad asking for lawyers, but it didnít provide a name or address, just a fax number. And there was a good reason for that. The person who placed it was not a lawyer but was running an illegal law practise which specialized in scamming refugee claimants, while his sons were involved in gang activities. So any lawyer who worked for him might have been charged by the law society.

In my commercial-law work, I have seen the dirty tricks used, not just in business dealings but also in employment practises. For instance, I have found that, if a salary is "competitive", it pays as low as other places; if thereís "room for expansion", thereís not enough work so you have to bring your own; and, if itís a "good opportunity", you get the chance to create your own Fortune 500 company while your boss takes his cut. Of course, these words and phrases do not mean thereís something shady going on. In todayís high-tech world, a competitive salary can mean that they will beat the offer made by any company anywhere, and a good opportunity can really mean the chance to make a lot of money. So, if youíre looking for a job, you should keep in mind that not everything is a scam.

But you should still be careful, because, even in the booming software industry, predators are lurking around to trap the unwary. When you look for a job, you should keep some things in mind. For instance, did the employer give his name? If not, why not? Does he place the same ad every few months? If so, why? And, during the interview, does he avoid talking about your salary? And does he evade the issue when you bring it up?

As I said, none of these can mean the job is bad. Sometimes, they wonít talk about your salary because they want you to bring it up and see what you say. Thatís a legitimate tactic. And I know of a prominent divorce lawyer who was looking for help recently, and she did not provide her name - maybe she just wanted some privacy. She certainly had nothing to hide. Still, as I said, these are some things to watch for.

There is one thing that will almost certainly say something is wrong, and thatís when they wonít take no for an answer. If, for example, they offered you a job, and you said you wanted to think about it, they may get angry. They may say that youíre not learning to accept responsibility, and itís high time you got a job, and, if you cannot take risks, you cannot make it in the software industry. And, if you repeat what you said, they will get angry again.

Then you should suddenly ask why they are so desperate to make you accept.

The more desperate they are, the worse the job is. And you donít want to work with such people anyway, so donít bother.

And definitely be wary of putting any money down. Quite often, they will want you to give a deposit, perhaps as an act of good faith or to show your commitment. Thatís not because they need the cash - after you have handed it over, they will ask you to sign an agreement, so thereís no misunderstanding. You would find there are terms you would probably not have accepted, but, since youíve already paid, youíll have no choice. Then they will be asking you to do the dirty work no one wants, and, again, you will have no choice because the money is non-refundable. One lawyer, whom Iíll call Benedict, says itís good strategy. Other lawyers say this is bad faith, which can be grounds for overturning a contract. And, since Benedict has a bad reputation, I avoid him - I do listen to gossip.

I would say that you should wait for a good position. But, sometimes, you canít get that. I canít tell you to refuse a bad job, because you may need the money and that job can bring in some minimal income. But the employment situation seems very good now, so you can probably pick and choose.

So be fussy, and donít get caught.

Stanley Foo is a lawyer, but this article is for discussion purposes only and should not be considered legal advice of any kind. He would like to thank Matthias Noch and Chuck Genthe for their comments.

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