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October 24, 2013

Law panic and non-lawyer legal training

by Dan Rodriguez

“What we have here, son, is a failure to communicate” (Cool Hand Luke)

Had a conversation yesterday with a first-year JD-MBA student, talk turning to our new Master of Science in Law (MSL) program for engineers, scientists, and medical professionals.  He noted, from his experience with a family-owned company in the tech sector, the ways in which tech professionals approach their lawyers with a mix of trepidation and cynicism.  Lawyers, to paint with a broad brush, are the enemy in the high-tech space.  They retard innovation, curtail risk, and limit innovation.  Or so are the fears, whether or not expressed, on the part of entrepreneurs who are looking to move their inventions to market, protect their intellectual property, construct a business plan for a unique start up, etc.

This reaction is not baseless.  The juxtaposition of the lawyer’s role in counseling and in advocacy and the entrepreneur’s role in managing and taking risks is a complex one.  Lawyers are the speed bumps, and sometimes the brakes.  And the elaborate web of regulation hard-wired into our modern administrative state undergirds a system in which bold innovation and the rule of law exist in a ubiquitous tension.

That said, there are ways in which the law panic characteristic of many tech professionals is the result of the lack of a common language and a relevant common experience.  Our MSL program, and other programs which are likely to emerge along similar lines, aims to combat some of these difficulties.  By providing basic, applied legal skills in a law school setting, our program can help address this law panic.  It can furnish STEM-trained professionals (or freshly-minted graduates) with the skills and the pertinent vocabulary to interact with lawyers in an environment where constructive communication is essential.  To be crystal clear, our aim is not to make STEM professionals into lawyers.  We have a great JD program that does that.  Rather, our MSL program is made of a curriculum that furnishes the skills valuable to any tech-trained professional who is called upon to navigate and negotiate the complex regulatory jungle, to interface with their own lawyers and lawyers on the other side of the table, and to assist in realizing their own objectives through a foundational, background knowledge in legal principles.

Law panic creates what economists would rightly label transaction costs.  It imposes obstacles between lawyers and their clients; it introduces noise into the channels of communication that are essential to move constructive ideas forward and to realize economically fruitful objectives.  Careful attention should be paid, as with our program, to the sources and reasons for this disconnect; and creative solutions to this predicament is a worthwhile contribution to the well-being of not only the technology sector, but to economic progress more generally.

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