Legal Education for Nonlawyers

Last fall Cydney Swofford wrote about the growth of legal courses in journalism programs. Journalism is not the only field whose graduates would benefit from baseline legal training. Like journalism, STEM fields produce large numbers of graduates who drive innovation – they create new products, found new companies and find new ways to accomplish old tasks. But often the last thing these innovators want to do is bring in a lawyer. Lawyers often get a negative reputation, and as a consequence they end up as problem fixers instead of problem anticipators and solvers.

As a patent paralegal and as a summer associate with an intellectual property firm, I’ve seen clients seeking intellectual property protection at all stages of their company’s life and in all stages of their product’s development. And for as many people as there are who proactively seek out the advice of a patent professional, there are as many who wait until they receive a legal notice before doing anything. The reasons for this are complicated. A particularly risk-averse client may come in at the very beginning of the process and want to throw the book at protecting their innovation. This can be expensive and unnecessary without careful thought. Other clients have the idea that they know enough to get along without a lawyer, and end up overconfident with regard to the risks they face. Those are just two ends of a spectrum, of course, and there is plenty of room in the middle. Two recent experiences have demonstrated the importance of exposure to law, particularly intellectual property law, for future technical professionals.

First, last spring I was given the opportunity to observe and occasionally participate in New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering’s media law seminar. The course is required for NYU-Poly’s Masters in Integrated Digital Media and that semester was taught team-taught by a member of NYU-Poly’s staff and a practicing patent and copyright lawyer. A couple of the most vocal students in the seminar often had some basic familiarity with the terminology, but allowed that familiarity breed ignorance by failing to evaluate their colloquial understanding of concepts like fair use. On the other hand, a few of the students had never thought about the implications of trademark or copyright law on what they create and how they use the content of others.

Second, last summer I had the chance to go through part of NYC Seed Start, a start-up accelerator program, with the company I was working for. Two questions came up over and over again for all the start-ups in the program, regardless of their field or business model – “Have you incorporated your business?” and “Do you have a patent?”. It was startling, as a law student and former paralegal, to hear the answers. While most of the companies were formed as Delaware corporations, most of the business owners had done almost no thinking about their intellectual property rights. And these were people innovating in business-to-business services with unique processes for analyzing and automating pricing, building retail customer relationships, and connecting media content producers with consumers. The core of their business, and the key to any future success, for all of these companies was in the proprietary method they have and it was overwhelming unprotected. A quick anecdotal survey around the room showed the reasons – didn’t think it was protectable, were waiting until they had more cash to hire lawyers, didn’t think anyone would sue them. Thing was, strangely enough for those waiting for more cash on-hand, investors were hesitant to invest without intellectual property protection or a showing of consideration of it.

In a world where even the underlying code behind a product is subject to scrutiny and the answers aren’t yet solidified (2012’s Northern District of California decision on software copyrightability – it isn’t copyrightable – is currently on appeal at the federal circuit), having our innovators think about these issues ahead of time is important. NYU isn’t the only school looking for ways to explore the intersections between law and innovation. The University of Pennsylvania Law School and School of Engineering and Applied Science recently announced a new dual degree program, requiring a joint capstone course of technology and legal policy.

For schools that train our innovative and creative classes, the importance of basic knowledge and awareness of potential legal issues has become clear. And that is a good thing. The law is not just a highly theoretical discussion held in classrooms by law students and by lawyers, it is a framework affecting the day-to-day of how people drive us forward. Perhaps a legal education isn’t just for lawyer’s anymore.

Maggie Clements is a J.D. candidate, ’15, at the NYU School of Law.

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