Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.
For folks of my generation, that one word piece of career advice from a family friend to the young Dustin Hoffman in the movie “The Graduate” still ranks as one of the most memorable movie lines. But it does reflect a real-life conundrum: One of the questions that you either ask yourself or others is “what kind of law should I practice?”
You can take the approach I did, which was to have a vague idea, which you abandoned for various reasons, and then let serendipity take you for a ride and hope it’s pleasant. In my case, that worked. I represented some fascinating businesses during my career, from robotics to face recognition system vendors to telematics hardware and software vendors (think OnStar®) and handled a variety of cutting edge legal issues. But if you are the kind who would like to give a little push to pure blind luck, and steer the ship, here are my thoughts.
You will not starve learning about intellectual property law for the foreseeable future. I am not just talking patents here, so if you’re not an engineer, you’re still in the running. The “ideas and imagination” economy that the world is hurtling headlong into will value creativity to an unprecedented degree, and protecting ideas and other forms of intellectual property will be a full-time job for many that will be fascinating and probably rewarding. Deep philosophical questions about patenting new life forms, genetic engineering and solving the food supply problems facing the world, using technology to solve the fossil fuel and water shortages represent challenges that will demand the best efforts of the best technologists – and their counsel. Entrepreneurs and lawyers seem to be more comfortable with each other these days, and getting comfortable with technology, the current law both in IP as well as ancillary fields such as e-commerce, privacy, and communications and where it’s headed will serve you well.
While we’re at it, let’s also focus on privacy. Data may be king, but data about people is going to be gold, and what you can/should do with it is going to be a very fertile field for lawyers for years to come. The basic divide between the European Union “opt-in” and the US “opt-out” approach to data use is just the first of many such issues that will keep clear thinkers occupied for a long time. Data mining and correlation, coupled with a virtually endless flow of technology developments that will enable things that were impossible yesterday, will fuel a never-ending debate about what should and should not be permitted. Legislative solutions v. voluntary industry self-regulation are going to combine to provide full employment in this field.
My last choice might be somewhat surprising, but it’s dispute resolution. America’s legal legacy of litigiousness doesn’t sell well overseas. As the global economy becomes ever more integrated, there will be even more disputes about things as mundane as a lost order in a plane crash and as momentous as how to handle transnational water disputes. New thinking about ways to resolve conflict has to proceed, as endless litigation over these issues has inherent limitations and less acceptance among non-US parties. Creating new models for third-party facilitation, or direct governmental multi-lateral action will be critical to finding solutions that work. This option might be particularly attractive to those political science majors who were wondering what exactly their degrees qualified them to do, besides go to law school.
This list is certainly not definitive, and you can probably add 20 equally valid options. But the future will be here — soon.