Law students need networking, expertise, and a little luck to make it in an emerging field

Law students need networking, expertise, and a little luck to make it in an emerging field
Third-year Calgary law student Trevor Gair, left, and professor Michael Geist met at RightsCon 2016 in San Francisco.
The power of the Internet is awesome. Tremendous amounts of knowledge are available literally at our fingertips. But with this great power comes great responsibility — and even greater questions.

“As technology becomes increasingly imbedded in our everyday lives, there are lots of implications that stem from that,” says Trevor Gair, a third-year JD student at the University of Calgary. Those challenges range from legal to social to ethical.

“How do we navigate, retain our values, and create the world we want to see?” Gair asks. “How do we use technology for good?”

These are some of the big questions law students with an interest in technology are asking themselves as they prepare to enter the profession.

While right now he’s focused on his upcoming articles with DLA Piper (Canada) LLP in Calgary — where he hopes to “learn a lot, contribute a lot, and really hone my craft,” Gair is not forgetting his long-standing interest in the power of technology.

Before attending law school, Gair co-founded SoJo, a web site specializing in social entrepreneurship training. The site, which caters mostly to students, offers an online toolkit of practical support to help young people “turn their ideas into action.”

SoJo also offers workshops — popular ones are Social Entrepreneurship 101, Design Thinking for Social Impact, Lean for Social Enterprise, and Building a Social Business Model — that focus on practical skills participants can begin using right away.

While already a presence on the tech side of things, Gair admits he has more ideas than concrete plans when it comes to his legal career, but he knows he’d like to ultimately marry his two interests.

“I’d like to eventually be involved with privacy or data or technology in some way, shape, or form,” he says.

Given his background and future ambitions, Gair went in search of more information — and maybe some answers — at this year’s RightsCon in San Francisco, which took place March 30 to April 1.

Gair revelled in his “introduction to this world and a chance to meet a lot of the players — tons of activists, big companies, policy executives, government individuals.”

An annual event since 2011, RightsCon looks at the intersection of the Internet and human rights. The 2016 event covered human rights, freedom of expression, and privacy in the digital age. There were sessions on issues such as online harassment, encryption, network discrimination and connectivity, digital inclusion, and Internet governance.

Gair says it was great to get more acquainted with the subject matter, to delve into the “gambit of issues and challenges,” and meet such a diverse range of people focused on so many different aspects of the interplay between technology and the law — topics that have always been of interest to him.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, who has been asking the big tech-related questions for more than two decades, says that even 10 years ago he would have been hard-pressed to get that many people to come to an event like RightsCon.

“It’s a great feeling to see the growth of this area with so many people from around the world focused on digital rights issues.”

It’s a great event for law students interested in law and technology, says Geist, who studies and writes extensively on these issues. It’s an incredible opportunity to engage and interact with leaders in an emerging field — and who knows who is hiring, or might be down the line.

He says, however, that the conference presents a geographical challenge for Canadian law students as it alternates between California one year and somewhere else in the world the next. For example, the 2015 event was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and in 2017 it will be in Brussels, Belgium. The experience itself might be priceless, but airfare and other travel expenses are real-world costs.

This limitation is something Gair was only too aware of. So he hit up University of Calgary law dean Ian Holloway for help funding his trip.

“I pitched it as a unique opportunity to supplement coursework at a world-class summit in an emerging field,” Gair explains.

His Internet law professor, Emily Laidlaw, also wrote a letter for Gair supporting his bid for funding. The faculty ended up subsidizing part of his trip using the Student Activities Fund, which is there to help law students attend extra-curricular activities such as conferences or case competitions.

Geist says it’s “great a Canadian law student took the initiative to come” and adds that a growing number of students are coming to law school specifically to focus on technology and the law. Those students, whether they are able to attend big-ticket events or not, need to “build a network, demonstrate interest, build expertise, and get a bit lucky” if they want to make it in an area that is attracting mounting interest, he says.

“If you look at people working in the area, it’s filled with people who knew these were the issues they wanted to focus on and kept at it,” says Geist. “There’s a technology aspect of every area of the law so expertise is valuable.”

Intern in the summer, get involved with people from the organizations related to the tech area of law, and keep an eye out for more local events where you can network, suggests Geist.

“Ultimately, transitioning from law school directly into a work environment that’s exactly the one you want isn’t easy,” Geist says.

“It requires a lot of hustle and a bit of luck, frankly, for most students.”

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