Law students from coast to coast are getting more hands-on training in privacy, as schools use technology clinics for training in an area of the law that’s exploding in popularity at firms and social justice organizations.
The push for clinical education in the space comes as firms struggle to recruit and retain junior talent amid rising workloads, and public interest groups wrestle with new civil liberties issues and inequities stemming from the adoption of facial recognition and other technologies.
Top law schools have had intellectual property clinics since the early 2000s. The scope for many has expanded to include broader technology issues related to privacy and cybersecurity, clinicians say. Other schools have created entirely new clinics.
Many of the clinics also operate through a social justice lens, giving students the opportunity to provide privacy counseling for those who might otherwise be unable to afford it, as well as investigate potential civil liberties abuses.
Law schools at Harvard and Georgetown universities; the University of California, Berkeley; New York University; and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, have all leaned into hands-on training for students, teaching them how to think and act like real lawyers.
“Clinical experience has really moved from the periphery of legal education to the center,” said William M. Treanor, executive vice president and dean of Georgetown University Law Center.
Technology clinics, in particular, help fill a skills gap in legal education since new laws are constantly emerging and the case law isn’t as established as in other sectors.
Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, founded in 1999, originally operated largely as an intellectual property clinic. It’s evolved to tackle issues as varied as algorithmic bias and content moderation and hosts about 30 to 35 students per semester.
The clinic’s students do a mix of counseling for mission-driven organizations, litigation, political advocacy, and transactional work, said Christopher Bavitz, vice dean for experiential and clinical education and the clinic’s managing director.
“Privacy in particular has been explosive in terms of both client demand and student demand,” Bavitz said. “Students are aware that they’re going to be grappling with these issues after graduation, whether it’s at the ACLU, a law firm, or a tech company like Facebook.”
The University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law’s Detkin IP and Technology Legal Clinic is focused largely on strategic counseling and transactional work.
Its emphasis is on both intellectual property and privacy, with privacy matters growing in popularity over the past decade, said Cynthia Dahl, the clinic’s director. About eight students, mostly in their third year, take the clinic each semester, she said.
“Lots of startups and companies now have questions about patentability as well as privacy and data protection,” Dahl said. “Like, ‘How do you protect this database’ or ‘What about data scraping and fair use?’”
Social justice is embedded into the seminar components of Georgetown’s Intellectual Property and Information Policy Clinic, said Amanda Levendowski, the clinic’s founding director.
Students, for example, learn how the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act squares with nonconsensual internet pornography, and how surveillance activities aimed at truck drivers and low-wage warehouse workers are being translated into corporate America, she said.
Harvard’s clinic also focuses on broader technology equity issues, said Kendra Albert, a clinical instructor there and director of the school’s Initiative for a Representative First Amendment.
In past semesters, students have worked on a copyright case for an LGBTQ media organization and an amicus brief in a privacy and civil liberties case related to electric scooters, Albert said.
“Going forward, I think we’re going to do more traditional civil rights work for sex workers and disabled people,” Albert said. “People who are often not centered in conversations around tech.”
At NYU’s Technology Law and Policy Clinic, about half of each semester’s students partner with attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union, said Jason Schultz, the NYU clinic’s director. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, those students would go into the ACLU offices each week and help attorneys prep for moots or assist with amicus briefs.
“That kind of an environment, working with lawyers who think on these issues every day, you can’t replicate that anywhere else,” Schultz said.
At Berkeley, clinic students have worked on projects about the use of electronic bracelets on juveniles in the California criminal justice system, said Catherine Crump, director of the school’s Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic.
Although much of the Berkeley clinic’s work is focused on public interest, it also emphasizes core data management skills—such as learning how data is stored, used, and retained—applicable to other types of legal work, Crump said.
“The clinic helps students build important skills and privacy expertise even if they ultimately go into the private sector,” she said. “The same type of frameworks apply.”
Because most clinics operate only for a semester, it can be challenging for students to acclimate themselves to complicated—and emerging—technology topics within the law. But that relatively short time can also lead to significant growth, Levendowski said.
“They’re student attorneys but the way they grow to inhabit that role is such a joy to observe,” Levendowski said. “When you have time to reflect and think back to your own approaches and how that grows even over the course of a 12-week semester, that’s where a lot of growing happens.”
Dyllan Brown-Bramble, who worked alongside Levendowski in the Georgetown clinic during his third year, said the experience taught him how to work with clients to better understand their needs and help them solve tough legal problems.
That face-to-face interaction isn’t something many associates at large law firms get until their third or fourth year, said Brown-Bramble, who’ll be joining Latham & Watkins LLP later this year.
“Being the one who made the agenda and did all the follow through, that was important,” he said. “With Amanda it never felt like babysitting, and I felt a lot of autonomy in making decisions, but she was there as a safety guard.”
Clinics also equip students with such nonlegal skills as communication, time management, and general professionalism that they might not get from a doctrinal class, said Melodi Dincer, a 2020 NYU Law graduate.
Dincer, who was at NYU’s clinic for both semesters of her second year, said her clinic work on amicus briefs directly translated to her post-grad fellowship at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy organization, where she helped craft such briefs for privacy and technology cases.
Dincer, who started a federal clerkship this month, tackled topics as varied as data scraping and cell phone searches while enrolled in NYU’s clinic.
“I’m hoping more law schools expand clinical offerings in the technology space especially,” Dincer said. “As regulatory attention turns more seriously to this area, I think there’s going to be more demand from law students for exposure to this type of law.”