Opportunities for a technical lawyer?
June 25, 2008 12:17 PM   Subscribe

prompted by an earlier question, I'm considering a career change and going to Law school. More to follow...

I'm currently an E-mail systems engineer. I've been thinking a lot lately about going to law school, and trying to find a spot somewhere as and ADA.

Anyone in mefi land have experience there?

If I were to decide not to go into trial law, what other opportunities would there be for a lawyer with a technical computer background?

Any other warnings, or suggestions?
posted by Karmic_Enigma to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As to warnings/suggestions, there are lots of earlier threads, and I won't repeat them. As to your more particular circumstance, someone of your background may find patent law appealing -- or at least be more marketable in that field because of your background, which may be a virtue if you go to an iffy school or emerge in a tight market.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:26 PM on June 25, 2008

So few lawyers outside of the Valley understand technology that I imagine you would be cherished, valued, and in high demand with most firms.
posted by rokusan at 12:30 PM on June 25, 2008

Response by poster: Just to throw in some more info, in case it helps. I'm currently 33 and have been doing what I do for 12 years.

I do have an uncle who is a DA, so I actually know there is some difference in what you see on TV and what actually happens.

I'm In TX, and actually like it here. So, if I do go out of state to school, I would probably come back afterwards.
posted by Karmic_Enigma at 12:39 PM on June 25, 2008

I can't speak to the trial law end of things at all, but as Clyde Mnestra suggests, patent law would be the obvious choice with your background. Since you're in Texas, you might want to consider UT. The IP law program is very well-respected, as is the IP journal. Lots of folks on the journal are older than the average law student, having had careers in technology before coming to law school. Most of them end up with multiple offers from biglaw firms. Some get jobs as in-house counsel with technology companies. Overall, IP law (especially hard IP, the more technical side of things) is very well paid and in demand in Houston, Dallas, and Austin -- if you want to do patent law, you should be able to pretty much have your pick of those cities.
posted by katemonster at 12:54 PM on June 25, 2008

There are two practice LSATs available here and here.

Make sure to take them timed, and these should give you a decent idea of the baseline score you're working from.

Depending on what your undergrad GPA was, you'll want an LSAT score of 165+ or so to have a shot at the top 20 schools or so. Going outside the top 20 can be a risky proposition, as you'll be assuming 100-150k in debt without a guarantee of sufficiently remunerative employment at the end of it.

You can see the range of numbers admitted to various schools at lawschoolnumbers.com

If at some point you are considering going outside the top schools, be sure to read this and this.
posted by ewiar at 12:54 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I teach at a law school.

Before you leave a good career, closely check your motivations and the nature of the work. There are a lot of overworked and unhappy attorneys out there. A lot. It's great that you have an uncle who you can talk to about this. You may want to shadow him for a couple of days to see if you would like the life he has.

If you decide to pursue the deputy district attorney route, take evidence as soon as you can, take all the trial advocacy classes, and do externships, internships, everythingships at the D.A. offices where you ideally want to work. At least in my neck of the woods, these are difficult jobs to land, and personal contact with the potential employer helps a lot.

If you decide to build on your technical background . . . There are a lot of IP jobs out there, but they are kind of practice and geography-specific. Large law firms in urban markets especially on the coasts are always looking for good IP attorneys with technical backgrounds (assuming the potential recruit went to a school where these firms interview). If you plan to live in a city in Texas that doesn't have a thriving tech market, you may have more trouble.
posted by ferdydurke at 1:01 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think a tech lawyer might have a fun time at EFF.
posted by cior at 1:16 PM on June 25, 2008

If you plan on practicing in Texas and don't plan on getting into or paying for a highly-ranked (and often, highly priced) law school, then I'd suggest looking at Texas schools.

Shadowing a lawyer before committing to law school is VERY excellent advice. You could also offer your technical services to law firms either consulting or as an expert witness. I'll bet your uncle or other Texas District Attorney (especially in a small jurisdiction) would be thrilled to have you volunteer to give their system a diagnostic. If you're explicit about your interest in going to law school, they'd be happy to give you a sense of their office and job - and possibly try to dissuade you from going to law school.

You can check out job listings for ADAs in Texas at the job bank of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. They are low paying - yet coveted - positions. Larger counties don't have to advertise - they have law students knocking down their door.
posted by GPF at 1:29 PM on June 25, 2008

Don't feel that because of your technical background, you're obliged to get involved in IP. It is an obvious and perhaps easy choice, but don't let that dissuade you if you really (really really) are interested in the criminal side. I know ADAs and AUSAS who boast of their ignorance when it comes to computer evidence issues or electronic wiretaps--you would thrive on that stuff.
posted by Brian James at 1:36 PM on June 25, 2008

I was gonna suggest the EFF, but cior beat me to it. I'm currently a python programming hopefully going to law school next year, and a place that seems interesting to get involved with is the Berkman Center.

My thinking is that knowing how The Internet works gets you in at any number of web-based companies (Google always needs lawyers,I hear) or research/activism regarding privacy/free culture/telecom things.
posted by Lemurrhea at 2:14 PM on June 25, 2008

So few lawyers outside of the Valley understand technology that I imagine you would be cherished, valued, and in high demand with most firms.

You imagine completely wrong. The level of technical expertise required to perform legal work related to technology is relatively low, and much easier to pick up than strong legal skills are. You may need specific technical expertise in order to be a member of the patent bar and prosecute certain types of patents, like electrical engineering or chemical engineering. Other than that, the actual technical knowledge required to practice "technology law" is pretty low. Most of the people I know in my field with those backgrounds are benefited by their attention to detail and their problem-solving skills, not anything to do with their specific technical expertise or "understanding of technology."
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 3:07 PM on June 25, 2008

I think a tech lawyer might have a fun time at EFF.
a place that seems interesting to get involved with is the Berkman Center.

A tech law student in their first year will have a fun time at EFF or Berkman; both have good, interesting summer internship programs. I think Creative Commons has their first legal summer intern this summer as well. (All are unpaid, natch.)

But after graduation is a different story. All of these places hire only rarely, and are hyper-competitive to get into as a lawyer- lots of relevant legal experience is a must. I hear that EFF had over 100 applications last time they had an opening for a lawyer, and that was some time ago (maybe two years now?) I'm not sure when Berkman last hired a non-academic lawyer as anything other than a clinical program part-timer; it has to be four years now, and he was with DOJ during the MSFT anti-trust trial.

Much more likely you'll end up doing lots of pretty rote work for quite some time, unless you're completely, absurdly lucky and/or well-connected. (I know a couple of kids who worked interesting backgrounds into work on Google-related copyright litigation, for example, so it isn't impossible.) Depending on your firm and where you are, you may get some pretty interesting work, but you might also go a long time between interesting/innovative assignments. This isn't necessarily bad- as others have pointed out, even if you're doing boring work, you can be very well compensated in patent law; technology transactions work (aka, licensing) is growing and in demand; and if you're in Austin you might be able to get involved in doing corporate work for interesting startups. But don't go in to school thinking you're going to be litigating awesome, cutting edge technology issues. There really aren't that many of those cases, and every technology-related lawyer under the sun wants to be involved in those, so getting in on them is hard.

I echo the advice of those above who suggest being very wary unless you're in the top 15-20 schools; I didn't apply to any schools outside of the top 10, and then only to those with a reputation as having good tech-IP programs: Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, and Duke. You can certainly do tech outside those schools (a number of schools have solid patent programs) but you're not going to get exposure to the most cutting-edge faculty, and you'll have a harder time getting placement at the most interesting firms. (Those firms are, as you probably know, likely going to work you to the bone, but they are also going to be the ones with the most interesting tech work. Tradeoffs are a bitch, aren't they? :)

My bio: I was once upon a time 'Sr. Geek in Residence' at Berkman, have had good friends go through the EFF summer program, and am currently a 2L at Columbia Law, where I am past co-president of the Society for Law, Science, and Technology, and incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Science and Technology Law Review. Last summer I skipped the tech non-profits and worked in Red Hat's legal department; this summer I'm at Orrick Herrington in Silicon Valley. Ask more questions either here or via email (in my profile.)
posted by louie at 10:24 PM on June 25, 2008

My thinking is that knowing how The Internet works gets you in at any number of web-based companies (Google always needs lawyers,I hear) or research/activism regarding privacy/free culture/telecom things.

I forgot to mention Google. Yes, they always need lawyers; but yes, they are apparently basically as crazy selective about their lawyers as they are about their programmers. 'Knowing how the internet works' is not going to be sufficient- you need to have excellent grades, good experience, etc. As another poster pointed out, having a tech background sure doesn't hurt, but many of the best practicing tech lawyers I know have polisci or philosophy or lit degrees as undergrads- they are not really technologists in any sense of the word. So don't count on mediocre law degree + mediocre tech background (or even good tech background and good law degree) necessarily opening many interesting doors.

I realize these last two comments have been pretty negative, altogether, which isn't necessarily my intent- certainly I had my eyes wide open and still did it, and there is lots of really interesting and important work to be done in this area. Just realize that the odds aren't great that you'll be the one working on the cases you read about on slashdot or techcrunch, even if you feel those cases are interesting and important.
posted by louie at 10:34 PM on June 25, 2008

Creative Commons has had legal interns before. I think two each year 2004, 2005 and 2006, and one this year.

CC just posted a new full time (but not 100% legal work) position.
posted by mlinksva at 10:56 PM on June 25, 2008

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