Just this week, the CEO of ride-sharing app Uber resigned after a spate of legal scandals, marking one of the biggest shakeups in Silicon Valley.
The move happened after the company had been grappling with issues ranging from allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, an intellectual property lawsuit from a competitor, and a federal inquiry into a software tool that Uber used to sidestep law enforcement.
The issues highlight the myriad legal precedents lawyers in the industry are facing with increasing scrutiny. Law schools have taken a cue on the increased need for courses and LL.M. specializations in technology law, and in past years many have expanded their offerings in the field. North America has a plethora of programs, including ones at Harvard, University of Ottawa, and Stanford, which has an LL.M. in Law, Science & Technology limited to students with a law degree earned outside the US and at least two years of professional experience.
While it isn’t a full LL.M. program focused solely on tech law, University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Law & Technology offers a specialized certificate program for LL.M. students that recognizes completion of a study course focused on technology law. Jim Dempsey, executive director of the institute, says that since technology-related law has long been one of the defining focuses of its law school program, “it has been only logical that tech law has been an important component of our LL.M. program.” The number of tech-related courses has grown each year, Dempsey adds.
Indeed, this is a growing field. Over the past few years a number of law schools have introduced LL.M. programs in technology and related fields. In 2016, Cornell Law School launched an LL.M. in Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, on its New York City Campus. Other schools, such as NYU and Loyola Law School, have launched specialized programs in Cybersecurity.
And it’s not just US-based law schools. Europe also has quite a few programs specializing in the intersection of law and technology; the University of Tilburg, in the Netherlands, has a Law and Technology LL.M couched in the university’s Institute for Law, Technology and Society. The University of Edinburgh offers an LL.M. in Innovation, Technology and Law that explores the role of the law in responding to and regulating new and emerging technologies.
Hot topics in technology law
Some of the most relevant issues in the sector have been consumer-facing, as companies are constantly navigating the legalities of new technologies that collect burgeoning amounts of data.
“Clearly, privacy and data security issues loom large, as cybersecurity touches every sector,” says Dempsey, who adds that there are a growing number of legal and policy issues at the intersection of big data, algorithms, machine learning and other artificial intelligence.
“At the same time, intellectual property protection still poses many challenges, as the Patent Office and the courts continue to struggle over issues associated with software and life sciences, to name just two sectors where IP law remains in flux.”
David Collins, LL.M. program director at City University of London, agrees, noting that the biggest challenges in technology law relate to privacy and data protection and associated issues of legal privilege.
“These are exacerbated by the rampant practice of outsourcing for things like due diligence in large scale litigation and in corporate restructuring. Add to that the rise of disruptive business practices which have automated many of the repetitive tasks that junior lawyers did in the past, reducing the need to hire trainees.”
Startups and other lean companies face even steeper legal learning curves, as they must draft their own user agreements and privacy clauses. These are some of the issues Patrick Gibbs, the in-house counsel at tech startup called KeepTruckin, encounters most in his work. (KeepTruckin is an electronic log and fleet management software for the trucking industry.)
“Information and data privacy, IP—those are the things you really need to be concerned about,” Gibbs says. “And commercial agreements—terms, warranties, indemnifications, a lot of those operational matters and service level agreements. How to deal with downtime, damages, what you can and can’t promise people.”
Post-LL.M. tech careers
Berkeley’s Jim Dempsey says the best options for LL.M. graduates are in their home countries.
“Technology lawyers from around the world are increasingly representing clients with trans-national interests; having that LL.M. degree and an understanding of US law will help make students a better lawyer,” he says.
David Collins’ students at City University of London typically net positions as associates at law firms; they also have gone to work in-house in companies, like financial institutions or those in the energy sector. Some of the better-known technology law firms in the US include Fenwick & West LLP, Gunderson Dettmer, Cooley LLP, and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “They do not, as a rule, get jobs as counsel for start-ups,” he says, as startups are generally short on capital until they can net stable funding and profitability.
But Gibbs says there are ways to an in-house position; many graduates start out with an associate position at a firm and end up working for startup clients who, once they’ve raised enough cash or have reached stable profitability, will need in-house counsel. For the associate, it’s often the perfect positioning to get in.
“You’ve been with them long enough that you know their business—you’ve been working deeply in their documents, you know their templates,” says Gibbs. “You can always go to your old law firm for outside counsel, while you handle more of the day to day operations.”
“That’s kind of the standard operating procedure for someone going straight out of law school who wants to work in-house.”