Cornell Tech to Train Lawyers to Tackle Startups’ Legal Kinks

The trouble with introducing new technology and ideas is they frequently can lead to lawsuits and other headaches.

Whether it is fighting patent trolls, testing the boundaries of old laws, or just coping with new regulatory rules, tech companies may have to cross many legal minefields as they scale up.

Expecting the landscape to continue to get more complex, last week Cornell Tech and Cornell Law School introduced a Master of Laws degree in law, technology, and entrepreneurship. Cornell Tech is an engineering campus under construction on Roosevelt Island in New York, which may take more than 20 years to completely build out.

The one-year Master of Laws program, expected to see its first class in 2016, will be for practicing attorneys and recent law grads who want to be ready to address the legal needs of technology companies, says Eduardo Peñalver, dean of Cornell Law.

The program will give attorneys the chance to work with students at Cornell Tech who are developing new services and products—to meet challenges posed to them by outside companies—and possibly to launch startups of their own, says Charles Whitehead, the professor who will oversee the program. The idea is to put attorneys in the mix when startups take root, and see how they might tackle regulatory matters along the way.

The program started to accept applications last Friday for the first class of up to 15 students, Peñalver says, with hopes to expand incrementally in the years after. Demand is growing from the tech industry for startup legal services. But many lawyers are not equipped to handle the types of issues that such companies confront. “This program will be able provide lawyers who can understand and respond to those needs,” Peñalver says.

There can be a lot of little things attorneys may have to address for companies in the startup sector, including layers of regulation, from local to federal government. “If you think about a company like Uber, it’s taxi licensing, and the definition of an employee rather than an independent contractor,” Peñalver says. “With Airbnb, what is a hotel and what are the regulatory requirements for operating one?”

Alums and others were consulted, says Whitehead, to help plan out the program and make it integral to the Cornell Tech campus. “In the last five years, there’s been an increase in focus on lawyers having more experiential training, the ability to interact more effectively with their clients,” he says.

There are traditional law school clinics that speak to entrepreneurship in general, Whitehead says, but Cornell Tech is taking a more immersive approach. “We’re embedding our students in the project teams,” he says. “They’ll be part of the innovation process.”

That will put them alongside technologists and business people, so they will have a better understanding of the pressures and challenges that go into tech development and entrepreneurship. “The more a lawyer can understand the business and technology side of their clients, the better they can serve them,” Peñalver says.

Special attention in the program will be given to handling intellectual property and other documentation—matters often better addressed by savvy attorneys who understand tech rather than busy founders. “Tech people think of this as friction,” Whitehead says. “It slows up the innovation process.”

Initially, the classes will be run at the temporary space Cornell Tech uses, donated by Google, in the Chelsea neighborhood. The plan is to relocate the program in 2017 to the forthcoming Bloomberg Center at the permanent campus.

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