Want To Go to Law School Because You're Interested in Internet Law?

Would-be law students occasionally ask me what's the best way of getting into Internet law. What school should they go to? How should they prepare? I'm not sure what the right answer is, but I thought I'd pass along some tentative thoughts:

1. Be skeptical about your initial interest. If you're excited about Internet law, that's great. But keep in mind that you probably know very little about what Internet law practice is actually like, and that Internet law practice (even if you can get into it) tends to be very little about the Internet as such.

My sense, for instance, is that most cases involving "Internet law" actually involve the application of familiar cross-medium legal principles — contract law, copyright law, contract law, trademark law, libel law, insurance law, did I mention contract law?, free speech law, jurisdiction law, and the like — to Internet transactions and businesses. Occasionally, you do have cases that turn on Internet-specific rules, or rules that end up operating differently on the Internet. But those cases are rare, and even those cases will mostly be about general legal principles and only partly about "Internet law" as such.

Perhaps you'll still be excited about them because they involve the Internet, just as many entertainment lawyers or sports lawyers get and stay excited about their fields even though the legal rules may be largely the same as for other business transactions. But you might well conclude that you'd gladly do copyright law generally, whether tied to the Internet or not, or that you don't much care for litigation generally, whether tied to the Internet or not.

2. Be open to other interests. Recall also that you probably don't know how much you might be interested in other legal subjects and other practice areas, which you just haven't studied. What if you find criminal law — or even tax law, bankruptcy law, or securities law — especially fascinating? (Though tax law doesn't sound sexy, many people come to like it a great deal, and see it as an unusually intellectually stimulating field.)

It may well be that several years from now, when you've seen more of the law, you'll find some other area to be more interesting than the one that fascinates you now. So stay open to the possibility, and don't focus too much on your current interests in choosing a law school, or preparing for law school.

3. Choose law school based on its overall quality, not its specialization. Law school really is primarily about teaching you how to think like a lawyer, and teaching you the skills and concepts that lawyers regularly use. It will also teach you specific legal rules, but most of the important ones — even for people who want to specialize in, say, Internet law — are rules that you'll learn at any good law school in generalist classes such as copyright law, trademark law, free speech law, and the like. And the other things you need to know you'll be able to pick up yourself, either in practice on in doing independent research projects during law school.

Relatedly, the credential value of a law school education will mostly turn (or so I've seen) on the reputation of the law school, coupled with your performance in law school, not on the reputation of a particular program within the law school. There might be exceptions, but I think this is the general rule.

So you might want to choose a top-tier law school, if you can get into it, because it has such a good reputation. Or you might want to choose a mid-tier law school in which your predictors (LSAT score and undergraduate GPA) are near the top or the high middle, rather than the one top-tier law school that let you in even though your predictors would place you at the bottom of the class. (There's something to be said for either approach.) Or you might want to choose a law school that's in a city where you'll be close to family. But I wouldn't much focus on the law school's specialty offerings, even if I knew that I wanted to practice, say, cyberspace law. And I certainly wouldn't much focus on the specialty offerings if I concluded that I couldn't reliably predict what I'd eventually want to practice (for the reasons given in points 1 and 2).

4. Choose pre-law classes that will improve your writing skills. (Almost) no matter what kind of law you'll want to practice, writing will be one of the most important skills you can have. And while good legal writing follows somewhat different conventions from good writing generally, the two have a lot in common. Moreover, while law school will teach you a lot about some lawyerly skills — reading cases, reading statutes, constructing arguments, and "thinking like a lawyer" — and while law school will try to teach you something about legal writing, you probably won't learn anywhere near enough about writing in law school alone. So the more you can improve your writing before law school, the better.

5. Should you choose other pre-law classes that fit your current expectations about your future career? All this having been said, should you still try to prepare for an Internet law career by studying more about Internet architecture, or computer programming, or what have you? After all, if you're thinking this hard about going to law school, you're probably the preparing type — shouldn't you do something special to prepare?

I'm not sure, because if you're already so interested in Internet law, you probably know a decent amount about the underlying technology and the underlying business structures. And it's not like you really have to know a vast amount of technology to do a good job as an Internet lawyer. (You might need to know a lot of biology to be a biotech patent lawyer, though I've heard some patent lawyers express doubt even about that. But my experience has been that most Internet law issues can be understood with a decent but not vast amount of understanding of Internet technology.)

But, hey, if you really want to take those classes, go ahead. At least you'll be interested in them, you'll get good grades, and you might have a better GPA when you apply to law school.

* * *

In any case, that's my tentative thinking about the subject; I'd love to hear what others have to say.

Charlito's Way (mail):
I am a 1L who worked for in-house counsel at an Internet Advertising Company after college for two years. I think you are absolutely correct that, from my experience in the trenches, it was just different practices of law as applied to the Internet (the one I think you forgot though, is patent law and litigation!).

But this may be good thing. It's a pretty cool experience for example meeting with the business and technology people who have come up with a new product and then tailoring a new contract for that innovative technology. Or even, if you were making photocopies at 2 AM like I was, being part of a M+A deal was part of a wave of internet company consolidations.

I love the internet and the technology involved in it, but it was also great to be part of such a high-growth sector as well. Made what otherwise might be very boring into something quite exciting.

Now back to reading Property!
10.24.2008 7:55pm
Stan Morris (mail):
When Doug Isenberg's came on line in 2001, I wrote for his site with a monthly column on free speech. I found that I talked about libel and commerce clauses as much as much as anything. I didn't see much difference when I left.
10.24.2008 8:41pm
First we kill all the lawyers.
10.24.2008 8:56pm
You forgot to mention contract law.

When studying for the LSAT, do not try to teach yourself a programming language at the same time. I speak from experience.

When looking at schools, consider just what angle they take on IP law, and what the tenor is in the local legal community. To take three examples: Seattle, the Bay Area, and D.C. all have different job markets - Seattle is heavily transactional, the Bay has more litigation (......over contracts), and D.C. has agency and appellate practice opportunities, etc. You may not know before law school just what you want to do as an "Internet law attorney," but once you do, you're going to need to figure out where those jobs are.

Moreover, consider what background the faculty who will be teaching you Internet law come from. UW has a number of people who used to be in-house at Microsoft. D.C. has... Conspirators. And in the Bay Area your professor will be a tinfoil hat-wearing, mashup-listening Communist. The syllabus may look much the same at various schools; the way it's taught will differ widely. You may or may not want "preaching to the choir" pedagogy.

Consider clinical opportunities in tech law and entrepreneurship, and what local externship opportunities there are. Find out what firms come to OCI.

When you get to law school, pay attention in 1L Civ Pro and Contracts. Take those sexy speech and copyright classes, sure, but learn M&A, business organizations, conflict of laws, and antitrust. Learn how to draft good tech contracts and how not to write bad privacy policies. Get on the tech law journal. Avoid the temptation to write your note about MMORPGs. If you don't have time to take classes in the technology underlying the Internet, date a CS grad student instead.
10.24.2008 9:07pm
matt b (mail):
this is terrible advice--all. lawyers have no value-added.
10.24.2008 9:08pm
I agree with you, particularly be skeptical about your initial interest.

Internet Law is the new International Law.
10.24.2008 9:24pm
DiverDan (mail):
Amen on number 4 - I did very well in law school, and I attribute a large part of my success to the fact that I graduated from a small liberal arts college - I never went a semester in undergrad when I didn't have to write two or three 20 page, fully footnoted and properly cited research papers. It was a pain, but I learned how to write well and efficiently. After I left law school, I was, for a time, on a list of resource people for 1L and 2L students, and I took a lot of phone calls from law students that had done very well in their undergraduate studies, and could not understand why they couldn't get out of the lower third of their class in law school. Almost every one of these told me they graduated from a major university, and managed to get a BA without ever having to write a major research paper. It doesn't matter how smart you are, if you can't organize your thoughts well and communicate them effectively on a timed essay test, you are going to struggle in law school. How do you learn how to write? PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. If you are currently a senior looking at law schools, and you've gotten this far without a lot of writing, do NOT wait til law school to start - that is too late. Take classes that will force you to write lengthy, well organized papers.
10.24.2008 9:33pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I agree with EV.

As for #5 (Internet or computer technical knowledge), I suspect that spending enough time in college to really understand it would be a time sink - unless that is the sort of thing that really interests you.

My background is similar to Eugene's, in that I had an extensive software background before becoming a lawyer, and in my case, I was designing protocol stacks while in law school (and trying to implement TCP/IP over X.25 20 years ago). So, I cannot remember not understanding how the Internet works.

But I deal all the time with lawyers in my firm who deal with domain names, licensing, free speech, etc. over the Internet, and do not have anywhere close to my level of detail knowledge about how everything actually works - and don't need it. As a patent attorney, it is helpful for me. It would probably just get in their way.
10.24.2008 9:50pm
I actually practiced Internet law for a number of years, and now I teach it. I agree with almost everything Eugene says, particularly about keeping an open mind about other interests. (I didn't specialize in Internet/copyright law until my third year of practice.)

I disagree somewhat with point 1 though. It's true that Internet law requires a smattering of everything, but I disagree that it's the rare case that departs from just applying ordinary law. Just about every matter I handled required either understanding new statutes or applying non-Internet-based caselaw in a non-straightforward manner to Internet technologies. And further, there's the challenge of attempting to explain to the court what the situation is and what real-world situations are analogous to it. You find yourself drawing on the same well of analogies, and it's through specializing in the area that you come to learn what those are and how best to make them.

There definitely is a bit of a factotum aspect to practicing Internet law -- but I also believe there is some there there, if you are lucky enough to be able to specialize in it. (Another thing to watch out for: a lot of firms *say* they have Internet law or technology practices; but often it's puffed up for recruiting purposes.)
10.24.2008 10:15pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
Learn how to litigate. The rest will come to you. I had a 1983 case recently against a law school classmate who took pretty much nothing after the first year but classes that had the word "rights" in them. He could litigate his way out of a paper bag. He filed a MSJ before any discovery was done, and explained his case without any supporting evidence. I sat there and laughed and demolished him in response. He knew that summary judgment meant "no genuine issue of material fact..." but did not know that you actually had to prove your case first with undisputed evidence. It was pretty sad.

I took classes like Advanced Civil Procedure, Advanced Tort Litigation, Federal Jurisdiction, Conflicts of Law, and the like. Those kinds of classes are the way to go. What good is it if you know every letter of the DMCA, for example, but can't deal with it in litigation? I never heard of 99.9% of the statutes I deal with every day until I left law school, and I know many of them quite well.

Just my two cents.
10.24.2008 10:33pm
EV, much of what you say is correct as far as it goes, but keep in mind you are a graduate of a very elite law school who did well and had an elite outcome (supreme court clerkship, teaching at top-tier school). Perhaps if you are speaking to other people headed for the same track what you say is good advice.

Most people who tell you they want to go into "internet law" or "work for the ACLU" and such are going to be undergraduates who have no idea what is really involved in the practice of law-- like most people they go into law school blind. Moreover most people have little chance of getting into the top law schools.

I would say that you should suggest the following to people asking these questions of you:
-forget "internet law" for a minute- what makes you think you would even like to practice law
-along those lines: if possible, you should try to work at a law firm at some point before going to law school, so you can get some idea of what the work will really be like
-if you don't get into a top 20 law school you have almost no chance of doing cutting-edge legal work at a top law firm
-if you're not at the elite top 10 to 20 schools, you need to go to law school in the city or state you want to practice law in

While I admire their enthusiasm, prospective law students need to understand that going to a mid-ranked law school is not going to net them a job as in-house counsel for Google, even if they make law review.
10.24.2008 10:36pm
MS (mail):
Dear Prospective law student:

TerrencePhilip is right and you should listen to him.
10.25.2008 12:59am
Michael Barclay (mail):
One interesting thing about the actual practice of "Internet Law" is that the technology industry and the media companies oppose each other on many of the important legal issues. My firm represents technology companies, and from our perspective, the media companies keep using copyright law to try to suppress innovation in new technologies -- improperly, in our view. One would think copyright law is supposed to protect original works of authorship, and that patent law is supposed to regulate new technologies, but many of the huge battles going on out there involve content owners trying to use copyright (and sometimes trademark) law to prevent the spread of new technologies. If you go into "Internet Law," you will quickly have to decide whose side you are on.
10.25.2008 1:28am
Redlands (mail):
Keeping options open is good advice. Took every tax course available and when I walked out the door someone threw a switch somewhere and decided I wanted to be a trial attorney. Oh well . . ..
10.25.2008 2:11am
BruceA (mail) (www):
Eugene is right --- the actual practice of certain areas of the law is very different than one realizes in law school and college. I have a BA and MA in economics, and went to the U of Chicago for law school. Needless to say, I was very interested in law and economics.

I still am, but I found that litigating large law and economics cases is grueling. Cases go on for a very long time, and the mundane litigation issues swamp the great economic issues. I didn't enjoy it.

I eventually found my way into appellate law, and I enjoy it a lot. Most of my appeals do not involve economic issues, but the legal research and writing is almost always interesting. Most mundane issues drop out on appeal. And some cases do involve interesting law and economics issues, and I love those.
10.25.2008 2:31am
jgshapiro (mail):
EV is forgetting about networking, which becomes important as you look for jobs after your first one.

The reality is that you are going to encounter more alumni of local schools in any area in which you practice, who will be predisposed to looking favorably on people who went to their law school. This may be less important if you went to a small handful of national schools with a solid pedigree, like Harvard. But if the choice is Duke vs. Boalt, you are much more likely to get the Internet job in Palo Alto if you went to Boalt than if you went to Duke. And there are just not as many Internet jobs near Duke.

As you go further down the pecking order, that becomes even more pronounced: you can easily get the Internet job from Santa Clara Law, but good luck getting it from GWU. There are just not a lot of GW grads at Internet companies to give you a hand, or an interview.

So if you want to practice Internet law, a lot of which is on the West Coast, you are going to find it easier to get that job if you went to a West Coast law school, regardless of whether you would have learned more about relevant topics somewhere else.
10.25.2008 3:02am
First, TerrencePhillip is right, and an aspiring Internet Law attorney should figure out if they want to be an attorney first.

I am corporate counsel at an online advertising company currently, so my job primarily focuses on "Internet Law." While much of what I do involves generally applicable legal principles (from contracts, litigation, etc.), there are a number of specialized statutes that directly affect my company that I have to have detailed knowledge about (e.g the CAN-SPAM Act and state mini-CAN-SPAM laws).

While I was on UCLAW's tech law journal, I didn't really take any classes directly applicable to Internet Law beyond the 1L year. They weren't really offered then. I specialized in employment law, and ended up with a firm job in a different field (malpractice defense). I sort of fell into my current practice area.

Ultimately, a smart, dedicated lawyer can relatively easily learn what they need to learn about Internet Law (excluding IP issues and tax issues) in probably a year or less. But experience as a lawyer overall takes much longer to acquire.

I also think it's more important to understand the way in which the Internet works, if you want to go into Internet Law. My experience as a computer lab tech in college is probably the most important experience I have for my job, outside of prior law practice and the job itself. Being able to explain to a judge how various aspects of the Internet works is one of the more important parts of Internet Law, in my experience.
10.25.2008 7:31am
I do tire of the following: "if you don't get into a top 20 law school you have almost no chance of doing cutting-edge legal work at a top law firm." This is not always true, and I would venture to say at least a 1/3 of the time not true. I just this past week talked with two students-who by their account claimed average law school performance-that graduated from a Tier 3 US News and World Reports School who are working at Top 20 Law Firms.

Both told me its all about networking. Sure, the track is much more difficult, but not as impossible as the refrain I hear on this blog sometimes.
10.25.2008 8:59am
The Cabbage (mail):
I am interested in Horse Law.
10.25.2008 1:52pm
treebeard (mail):
For those interested in Internet Law, I'd suggest that you clerk for Justice Posner's avatar, and then open up a law firm in Second Life.
10.25.2008 4:00pm
The River Temoc (mail):
Seattle is heavily transactional, the Bay has more litigation

Say what? All the top Wall Street firms (excepting the New York-centric Cravath and Wachtell, and for some reason Cleary) are in the Valley. Some of them (Skadden, Davis Polk) have fairly substantial practices there. That's not even bringing up the Wilson Sonsinis of the world, or the IP transaction practices at places like Fenwick.

And in the Bay Area your professor will be a tinfoil hat-wearing, mashup-listening Communist.

Folks like Mark Lemley, Howard Shelanski, Robert Merges, and Pam Samuelson are hardly your stereotypical Berkeley ideologues.

Do us a favor and don't claim to speak with expertise on a subject about which you clearly know very, very little.
10.25.2008 8:05pm
Public_Defender (mail):
The top-of-the-class-at-a-top-law-school advice works if you want to start at the top. You can't graduate middle of your class from a second-tier school and start a top notch job immediately after graduation. But my guess is that if you worked hard, built a practice, and networked right, you could work your way into top-tier work. I know how to do that in criminal law, but I don't know how one might do that working on "Internet Law."

Are there any areas of "Internet Law" open to savvy small practitioners? I would suspect so because tech companies seem to respect smart entrepreneurs. I know someone without a top tier degree couldn't immediately work for Google, but maybe they could do some work for a small, local ISP. Or maybe they could help smaller businesses with Internet-related issues. What those issues are, I don't know. In any case, the new lawyer would probably have to do a lot of non-Internet-related work to keep the lights on.

As for advice in law school, I agree with those who say get a broad education. You have a lifetime of specialized CLE's, so take this one opportunity you have to get a sense about how the law works. Pre-law, take classes that require detailed textual analysis, including literature and poetry. If you can't stand that, you will hate being a lawyer.
10.26.2008 7:41am
Jim at FSU (mail):
If you're already a computer nerd, get a degree in computer science and then go into patent law. It pays great and there is always more demand than supply. It's also the only way you're going to get to work with technology related issues in a legal context on a regular basis. Most of "internet law" is a lot more like ordinary law than you would expect. Most non-patent areas are primarily non-technological specialties that are becoming increasingly hi-tech as society moves in that general direction.

Becoming a patent attorney isn't a guarantee that you will end up working on technology you enjoy- I've met patent attorneys with CS degrees that worked in the related TCs at the PTO that were stuck doing mechanical patents when the dust settled.

And this risk is greatly elevated for patent attorneys that end up working at firms that don't focus on patent law. I've met plenty of "patent attorneys" that have ended up as generic contract lawyers that handle a few patent issues a year. And their salaries were a lot closer to generic lawyer money than to patent lawyer money.

The moral: choose your early employment carefully. A lot more carefully than you choose your law school.

About law school:
Sadly, law school is 99 percent wasted on people who already know what they want to do. It's basically a barrier to entry and you're going to spend three years on this little obstacle course. Treat it like this and you'll do fine.

Law school is kind of like a buffet to let liberal arts majors try a piece of everything and see what they prefer so they can go out and be useful as generic lawyers in a field they enjoy. This is a useful function, it just isn't useful to you. Don't expect too much from your classes and definitely don't expect anything approaching expertise on a subject unless you force yourself to research and write papers. I did this a few times and it gave me a much deeper understanding of the law than any textbook/exam class did.

I'd even go so far as to say that most classes in law school (especially first year with its MPC based crim law and common law based property classes) are filling the students' heads with complete garbage that they will later have to unlearn to be useful.
10.26.2008 3:35pm
OKC Lawyer (mail):
I agree with just about everything here except for one point, tax lawyers seem to be very award of a schools reputation in tax. If I was interested in tax law, especially an LLM in tax I would look at the school's reputation in that area. When we are hiring a new associate for tax, those in the tax section seem to rank the schools differently than general attorneys do. Just an observation.
10.26.2008 9:08pm
OKC Lawyer (mail):
opps aware not award in the first sentence.
10.26.2008 9:09pm
BZ (mail):
Hmm, kind of in the middle on some of these points:

I went to law school looking for "computer law" (there wasn't an Internet then; we used acoustical coupling modems to "time-share" when we were playing Star Trek on U.S. Navy computers across the country). Had a great background in computers; as one of California's pesky "Mentally-Gifted Minors," we had special classes in computer programming in elementary school. Learned to program by punching out the chads in punch cards with pencils; you'd send your deck in, and get the results back the next day or so, with the inevitable errors which had to be corrected. I got a Sinclair Z-80 with **8KB** (that's right, KILO) of memory, as a college graduation present. I took some of the first classes on "computer law," which, interestingly, were taught by a very capable African-American professor. It was all regular law, just as other commenters have said. Since then, have worked with computer manufacturers, software developers, and Internet users, all on "regular" law questions. But I didn't have a career in "Internet law".

When I was in law school, I wanted to be a prosecutor. I sublimated my computer interests with computer clubs, and just forgot about criminal law when a friend pointed out the salaries.

I graduated with honors, but not top honors, from a school at the bottom of the first tier (depending how you rank it), but have had a decent career since then, as a lobbyist, constitutional and statutory interpretation litigator, appellate lawyer, and specialist in a rarified area of tax law. Formed my own firm the day I was admitted and worked my butt off (including on Christmas some years). Have argued successfully before the U.S. and other Supreme Courts, written statutes and constitutional provisions which affect people every day, and had influence over some of the most contentious issues of our day. Through it all, I describe myself as a tax lawyer and appellate litigator, neither of which I was much interested in when I went to law school.

Pursue your interests, but keep an open mind.
10.27.2008 10:03am
BZ (mail):
Should have added a further endorsement of EV's Point #4: writing skills are key. But you can refine those after graduation through bar/CLE classes and outside opportunities if you look.
10.27.2008 10:05am