Cornell Tech: Transactional Experience in a Tech-Focused Market

Topics: Efficiency, Law Firms, Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Innovation, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

law schools

In Thomson Reuters’ examination of methods that law schools can use to help their students become more “practice ready,” we identified law school faculty and staff already integrating practice-ready skills into their curriculums as well as legal organizations helping new associates connect theory to practice. In the following series of profiles, we explore how these approaches are shaping both law students and law firms.

Cornell Tech’s resident LLM program is at the intersection of the graduate institution’s focus on integrating technology, business, law, and design.

“We’re putting the law students alongside developers in a way that hasn’t been done before,” explains Matt D’Amore, Professor of the Practice. “It results in a phenomenal experience for students they’ll take with them into their careers.”

D’Amore and his colleagues Chuck Whitehead and James Grimmelmann have been instrumental in the opening of a division of Cornell Law on the Cornell Tech campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. The Tech LLM program, a one-year add-on, is open to practicing attorneys and recent law graduates. It emphasizes students working together — with one another and with clients – in law, technology and business courses, product design classes, and the Studio, where students participate not only as lawyers but as product developers.

“We are providing what law schools have a harder time offering on the transactional side in two ways,” D’Amore explains. “The first is a ‘getting into the weeds’ understanding of what the deals are and how they work in a fast-moving market. The second part is coupling it with the Studio program — what it’s like to work with clients in this field, where students see decisions getting made, accepted and moved on; students see how the development process is working and what legal options it creates. They also see first-hand that the answer to a legal problem may not always be found in the law, it may result in changes in technology or business models.”

Product & Startup Studios

“The Studio component is a big part of our program,” he says. “It’s required for all Masters students — Law masters, MBAs, and Masters of Engineering and Computer Science. It’s probably 30% to 40% of their academic time, between classroom time and development time.”

“In the fall they work in the Product Studio on ‘challenge projects’ proposed by industry and NGOs,” he adds. “In the spring they develop their own products in the Startup Studio — all the way from market research to developing and pitching a product prototype.” The Studio program features hackathon-like sessions known as “sprints,” two or three times per semester, where students participate in intense brainstorming and development sessions, and then deliver status updates to their colleagues and mentors for feedback. Student groups also meet directly with practitioners in the field to get additional critique on their evolving ideas and prototypes.

“For law students, it’s a unique opportunity to work side by side with folks who will be their colleagues and potential clients in the future,” D’Amore says. “They are learning on the ground how new products get developed, and they see the pressures and the legal challenges that those efforts involve.”

In the spring, in addition to working on their own products, students are paired with law firms around the city to help their colleagues overcome those legal challenges, which involves answering questions like, ‘What type of company should we form?’ to ‘What type of IP should we try to protect?’ and ‘What form should that protection take?’ and, for startups in a highly regulated industry like fintech, ‘How do we navigate a complicated regulatory environment?’, D’Amore explains.

Technology, Innovation & Entrepreneurship

On top of the Studio program, “our core legal curriculum presents cutting-edge developments in the law and where it’s going,” D’Amore notes. “Our IP survey course focuses on issues that tech companies face, from patent infringement to software copyrights. The Internet law course focuses on issues such as security, privacy, and free speech. All of this is still developing, so students learn, ‘This is where we are, but here’s what’s coming and what you need to be prepared for.’

“This is coupled with transaction-based seminars — Technology Transactions and High-Growth Corporate Transactions courses — taught by law faculty and by practitioners,” he adds. “We spend less time with cases and statutes, and more with ‘Here’s what a venture finance term sheet looks like’ to understand how to adapt them for their particular situations.”

The subject matter cover issues founders face when figuring out what sort of company to create, how to compensate all of those people involves, how to get the company funded, and what ingredients are needed to make it all happen, he says.

“In Technology Transactions, we walk through actual patent licenses and observe, ‘This is where they succeeded, and this is where they failed,’” he says. “We cover how technology agreements work, and we give the students the opportunity to draft and negotiate terms in collaboration with practitioners from the top law firms in the area.  In addition, we bring in specialists in particular industries like online gaming, digital health, and fintech to get students’ heads around different types of contracts in different industries.” The program also helps students build a professional mindset by compelling them to consider issues from potential clients’ perspectives.

D’Amore, who practiced IP law for more than 20 years at top tech firm Morrison & Foerster before joining Cornell Tech, added: “They already know how to think like lawyers. What they see now is how to take that training and apply it in practice, yet still in an educational environment.

“They look at the deals from the standpoint of client and lawyer, asking, ‘If I’m the founder, how would I approach this deal? If I’m the VC, what are the kinds of things that I’m going to focus on? What if I’m on the other side of the deal?’” D’Amore explains. “They go through these things in class, but they know that next year these are the thought exercises they’ll need to go through to counsel their clients on these issues.”

D’Amore says this process offers transactional experience in a tech-focused market, which allows the students to see how these transactions and these businesses work in practice, in real time. “We’re embedded with engineers and business students all learning entrepreneurship skills together,” he says. “It’s impossible to replicate this in a regular law school environment, but we’ve been able to mix these skills, perspectives, and experiences at Cornell Tech.”