Cryptocurrencies Stake a Claim on the LL.M. Curriculum

Red-hot employer demand pushes law schools to train students to become trusted crypto advisors

Cryptocurrencies have captivated financial markets recently with prices for digital assets such as bitcoin and interest in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) soaring this year. Now, law firms are chasing a piece of the crypto action, offering clients a degree of confidence that their digital investments are legally compliant.

And, as the legal grey areas in this field open up a wide array of career opportunities for lawyers, a number of top law schools are responding to the market’s call by incorporating cryptocurrencies and other digital assets into the LL.M. curriculum, training their students to become future trusted crypto advisors.

“Cryptocurrencies are an exciting and complicated area, with lots of new developments almost daily,” says Matthew D’Amore, director of the Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship Program at Cornell Tech in New York. “While a lot of talk in the market is about the value of bitcoin, the exciting part for lawyers is where cryptocurrencies intersect with and transform existing legal frameworks.”

A couple of years ago, lawyers were all talking about ICOs (initial coin offerings), but now the latest buzz is NFTs, digital tokens or digital collectibles, which exploded in popularity this year after a digital work by artist Beeple sold for nearly $70m in an online auction at Christie’s in March.

“What these [assets] all have in common is that they are closely tied to ‘old’ issues of corporate, finance, and intellectual property law, given new power, efficiency, accessibility, or value due to the use of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies,” says D’Amore.

At Cornell Tech, the LL.M. program includes a course on Decentralized Finance, covering the myriad of ways cryptocurrencies connect with the regulation of financial markets. The school also teaches students about smart contracts and NFTs in the context of other courses, like Technology Transactions and Intellectual Property. Cornell Tech is even considering launching a short course dedicated to NFTs.

The increasing importance of FinTech

In recent years, many law schools have expanded their offers in the area of FinTech, which is a much broader topic covering the use of technology in financial services. Dedicated courses that specifically focus on the legal implications of cryptocurrencies and blockchain are few and far between.

However, these course will become increasingly important as the adoption of the technology becomes more widespread, and eventually mainstream. “With traditional finance and Big Tech investing heavily in crypto technologies, legal advice in this area has become essential,” says Michael Schillig, professor of law at the Dickson Poon School of Law, at King’s College London.

“Major law firms have begun to build up dedicated departments that can compressively advise on the ensuing regulatory and transactional issues,” he says. “These developments have opened up great opportunities for lawyers with an interest and expertise in this area.”

King’s College London has been offering an LL.M. module on Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain for the past three years. Student numbers have been steadily increasing.

“With wide coverage of blockchain technology in the financial and mainstream media, students are interested in a better understanding of how the technology actually works, and how the ensuing issues may be addressed from a legal perspective,” says Schillig.

“And major efforts are under way, both in the US and in Europe, for designing a more comprehensive regulatory framework for crypto assets,” he says. “Students also seem to be increasingly aware of the job opportunities in this area.”

Are there career opportunities in crypto law after an LL.M.?

For now, law schools say that students need to be curious about the technological underpinnings and have to be willing to step outside their comfort zone. A basic programming knowledge is helpful, but not essential.

“Law firms are hiring LL.M. students because they know the law and regulation around crypto,” says Lee Reiners, executive director of the Global Financial Markets Center at Duke Law. “There is a huge need for that, as various companies, prominent ones, have tripped up by failing to comply with law and regulation. Ripple is a prominent example.”

Duke Law has been at the forefront of putting crypto on the curriculum, having taught a FinTech Law course for the past five years. A large part of the module is dedicated to digital assets, and Reiners says he is spinning it out into a standalone, credit-bearing class, owing to the “huge career opportunities for budding lawyers”.

“This is an area that is new and the boundaries are still being drawn in terms of laws and regulation,” he says. “I tell students that there are no crypto legal experts in existence. By taking this class, you can become one.”

However, he says that interest among LL.M. candidates in crypto remains “a budding curiosity” at present. “Very few actually have been involved in crypto in a meaningful way. Many few have ever even bought it,” Reiners adds. “They probably read about it in the paper, and they just want to learn more about it. A few are true believers in its transformative potential.”

“There is no such thing as a crypto lawyer”

In 2018, Donna Redel developed a course on Blockchain-Crypto-Digital Assets at Fordham Law school in New York. “It’s gone crazy,” she says. “There is so much interest and opportunity, the law firms cannot scoop up enough talent. They just need them desperately as law firms carve out specialties in these digital assets. All of the major banks are thinking about crypto too.”

Her course covers blockchain, bitcoin, stable coins, central bank digital currencies, NFTs, ransomware, and smart contracts from a historical legal perspective. But she cautions that LL.M. students cannot learn about digital assets in isolation.

“There is no such thing a crypto lawyer, you have to know securities law, intellectual property law, contracts, and then specialize,” says Redel. “If you want to go into decentralized finance, you won’t be as interested in NFT and how music and art is being released digitally.”

The challenge for course administrators at law schools is updating their content quickly enough to reflect the fast and frequent changes in the dynamic crypto markets, along with finding enough teaching faculty who are clued up on crypto, and harried executives who can deliver guest lectures on the assets.

“Right now, everybody is super busy because the demands on the practicing lawyers are huge,” says Redel, adding that courses on crypto are also competing with other subjects for space in an already jam-packed curriculum. “There’s only so much time in an LL.M.,” she says.

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