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Why a JD Might Be Your Ticket to a Career in Tech

Why a JD Might Be Your Ticket to a Career in Tech

By Sanjena Sathian


Because you might have a helluva lot of equity to lose.

By Sanjena Sathian

If career advisers wanted to get rich, they might hope to get a nickel for every time they heard: So I want to go to law school, but I don’t want to be a lawyerAh, law schools, those havens for the liberal-arts-educated seeking their elusive passions. Common wisdom these days suggests the era of English majors shelling out for a law degree to compensate for their unemployability is officially bygone. Law school is too expensive; jobs are too hard to come by; and the robots can do the legal grunt work of a first-year associate for less than 10 percent the cost. But there’s an industry where the future for a young lawyer may be bright: the gilded tech world.

The general-counsel role — the top attorney at a company — once consisted of interpreting laws already on the books and handling shit storms that might arise. Today, though? For some technology companies on the bleeding edge, there’s little common law to pull from. Much of Silicon Valley’s dream work “is not really clearly governed by any well-defined existing bodies of law,” says Vivek Krishnamurthy, clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw clinic. Which means that knowing the law might help you write the law. For now, experts say a small yet growing group of young lawyers are stepping into tech; of the nearly 40,000 jobs reported by the class of 2014, fewer than 230 were in non-law technology companies — an option that didn’t really exist for law graduates a decade ago, according to the National Association for Law Placement. But more lawyers may be headed that way as the job market slowly improves and fewer folks enter JD programs.

Technological power is compounding on itself so rapidly that the law can’t possibly keep up.

An example of the new tech-law career path might come from Belinda Johnson, the former deputy general counsel at Yahoo. At Yahoo, she faced down the early days of online-content regulations over such matters as streaming music, for instance, way before Spotify versus T-Swift. It’s even more pronounced at her job today — she’s the chief business affairs and legal officer at Airbnb — and was hired uncommonly early for a lawyer at a young startup, because, as she says, Airbnb’s founders were “incredibly cognizant of the regulatory challenges” that lay ahead. Count among those challenges questions of taxation and a labyrinth of rental laws worldwide. Johnson tells me her job feels a lot more like policy setting than precedent parsing. 

It makes sense: Technological power is compounding on itself so rapidly that the law can’t possibly keep up. Those who have a few areas down pat will be in high demand. Which ones? Privacy, obviously. Employment — see: contract-work platforms like Uber or TaskRabbit. Plus copyright — think YouTube, which had far fewer restrictions on uploading than its competitor Vimeo. According to a Quora post by one of Vimeo’s founding partners, YouTube’s willingness to actually engage in the copyright game helped the company to its billion-dollar-plus acquisition, leaving Vimeo behind.

You can also include the broad category of “international law.” A company that distributes its wares on the web rather than depending on ships and highways and the like can go from local to global in a snap, explains Michael Samway, former vice president and deputy general counsel at Yahoo. Take the case LICRA v. Yahoo in 2000, when a French court heard anti-racist group LICRA’s complaints that the sale of Nazi memorabilia on Yahoo’s auctions was illegal. Though a French court argued Yahoo had to follow national law — since, after all, French citizens could view Yahoo on French soil — an American court said nay. U.S. courts went with the old-hat international law standards, finding that since Yahoo was headquartered in the U.S., it wouldn’t be held responsible for every law of every country where someone used it. 

But perhaps even more useful than niche subject-matter expertise, says Krishnamurthy, is a “self-regulatory instinct.” Meaning asking not only whether a product is violating an existing law, but also, whether it could hit trouble down the road. Each bit and byte that goes into building the hardware and software of the information age contains in it all kinds of decisions, Krishnamurthy explains. You do the math: An attorney on call early on might help a smart founder choose how much copyrighted material her app should try to mess with. An attorney could convince a budding drone company to fly at a certain height so that different airspace laws apply. And it’s that attorney who might be thanked thrice over in stock options when it turns out that the competition forgot to consider legal nuisance.

Still, before you rush to drop almost $200,000 on a grad degree — roughly the cost of a private law school plus living expenses, according to the American Bar Association — you might want to ask how much you’re entering the stately halls of advocacy to learn its ins and outs or to learn how to learn, you liberal arts kiddo, you. For one: You’re taking quite the risk, opting for more school when your peers in Startuplandia are increasingly quitting halfway through undergrad and salaries for those on the cutting-est of edges — early-stage startups — tend to be lower than your first-year-corporate associate paycheck.

Either way, if you’re interested in drawing up the law of the future, you might also consider the words of one Lawrence Lessig — democracy activist and brief 2016 presidential contender — “code,” goes the title of an essay he wrote back in 2000, “is law.” And not the other way around.

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