Editor’s note: The first cohort just graduated from Santa Clara University School of Law’s innovative Tech Edge J.D. program, which combines legal, business, and technology education with hands-on skills development and individualized mentorship, all while leveraging the school’s Silicon Valley location. In this guest post, Laura Lee Norris, director of the program, and Mark Michels, lecturer in law, describe the program and how it prepares students for careers as tech lawyers in Silicon Valley.

Santa Clara University School of Law graduated its first Tech Edge JD cohort in May 2021. The Tech Edge JD is an innovation in law school education that attempts to change the return on investment in legal education by providing graduates with essential legal, technology, and business skills required of tech lawyers in Silicon Valley. Graduates of the program are able to hit the ground running in their first job placement as compared to their peers who graduated from a more traditional legal education.

The brainchild of Professor Eric Goldman, the Tech Edge JD was a product of years of market research and consultation with industry professionals about how to better position Santa Clara Law graduates for the Silicon Valley job market. The Tech Edge JD launched in 2017, inviting law school applicants to apply for a position in the inaugural 2018 incoming cohort.

According to Goldman, “The Tech Edge JD certificate is innovative because it focuses on skills and competencies rather than subject matter, changing the value proposition for employers who traditionally may have relied on grades as an imperfect indicator of capability.  The Tech Edge JD requires students to achieve certain knowledge or skill milestones, whether that’s done via courses, externships or clerkships, or even extracurricular activities.”

Associate clinical professor and former Silicon Valley executive Laura Norris is the Tech Edge JD faculty director.  “Our goal at the outset was to leverage our Silicon Valley location and Santa Clara’s nationally recognized tech and IP law curriculum to create a pathway for JD students wanting to study technology and the law,” Norris said. “The result is a one-of-a-kind JD certificate program combining hands-on skills development and individualized mentorship.”

Another unique aspect to the Tech Edge JD program is in its selection of students. The selection process is more rigorous than the standard student application, setting the tone that completion of this program will require students to work above and beyond their traditional legal studies. Students apply for the program at the same time they submit their law school application. Students must submit essays relating to technology and their desire to work in a tech law field, and participate in an interview with the Tech Edge JD director. Cohort members are chosen based not just on grades and standardized test scores, but also using other factors such as intellectual curiosity about technology and its impacts on society.

Tech Edge JD students begin their training before law school even starts. The Tech Edge JD cohort is provided a recommended reading list and assigned homework over the summer. They attend orientation prior to commencing class in the Fall semester. In the orientation, the students explore technology law careers and, among other things, employ design thinking exercises to craft an individualized career plan. The orientation also allows students to immediately begin practicing their networking skills with faculty, advisors, and mentors.

The inaugural cohort’s orientation began with a breakfast at Silicon Valley’s Cooley LLP, where they met several Santa Clara Law alumni from various practice groups. The cohort also visited Facebook’s campus to meet with legal department attorneys and later met with Santa Clara Law lawyers from Infinera, Amazon, GitHub and Reed Smith, as well as a solo patent practitioner, who shared their career insights. All told, the students explored the career paths of 23 practicing attorneys before designing their own individualized career path and education plan.

“Before arriving on campus for the Tech Edge JD orientation, I had assumed I was going to be a patent prosecution attorney, since that was the career path that pattern-matched with my undergraduate technical degree.  We met so many different attorneys on that first day of orientation, doing things that I never could have imagined.  It really opened my eyes to the variety of jobs available to a JD with a technical background.”  

– Nancy Attalla, Tech Edge JD ’21 graduate

Tech Edge JD students must write a career plan and have the plan approved by their advisors during their first semester. Setting professional goals at the outset of the students’ law school careers       enables them to maximize the full value of their law school experience. It also gives the students concrete talking points to discuss with mentors and other attorneys through networking events, enabling meaningful exchanges with working professionals from the earliest stages of their law school journeys. The career plan is not locked in stone; as the students prototype their career through informational interviews and work experiences, many fine-tune their career plan before graduation.

Tech Edge JD students start their law school journey with a support team. Each student is assigned a faculty or staff advisor who counsels the student and helps the student figure out how to tackle each program milestone. Each student also is assigned two professional mentors, such as alumni or local practitioners, who provide additional perspectives and help integrate the student into the professional community. Mentor interaction is flexible and student-driven. Many students spend time shadowing their mentor or participating in other experiences with their mentors. Advisors and mentors receive training from the TEJD program faculty before assuming their role. Mentors and advisors are expected to work with the students during their entire law school career.

“Coming from Southern California, I knew that I had to start from scratch in building a network in Silicon Valley. My Tech Edge mentors and advisor were instrumental in providing me with the tools to successfully expand my network in order to land internships and post-graduate employment.”

– Phil Fox, Tech Edge JD ’21 graduate

Each Tech Edge JD student participates in Santa Clara Law’s Entrepreneurs’ Law Clinic (ELC), created by Norris in April 2013. ELC students work with startup companies and entrepreneurs from Santa Clara University’s campus community, such as the Bronco Venture Accelerator and Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Both in the classroom and in the clinic, the students learn about the wide range of legal and business issues facing “real-life” startups. Clinic clients have included technology startups such as wind turbines, underwater autonomous drones, wearables, social media apps, and AI artists, as well as non-profits and service industry mom-and-pop establishments. The clinic students advise their clients on just about any legal issue du jour keeping the founder up at night, such as privacy law, regulatory compliance, hiring workers, intellectual property protection, and setting up an entity.

The ELC is but one of three separate “real life” work experiences required of the Tech Edge JD students. To successfully complete the Tech Edge JD, each student must participate in two separate externships or internships that relate to the student’s career plan. These work experiences allow the students to try on their desired career choice and provide students with additional skills. Tech Edge JD students have fulfilled their externship requirements with state and federal judges, at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, with law firms, and at companies such as Amazon, Dropbox, Samsung, Pure Storage, Trust Arc, Intuitive Surgical, Twilio, Bigfoot Biomedical, Plug n Play, and Twitter.

Whether through externships, clinics, courses, or extracurriculars, Tech Edge JD students must demonstrate to their advisors’ satisfaction that they have completed specific “Benchmark Experiences,” or milestones. The milestones are designed to address key skills needed for entry-level technology law jobs, including:

  • Understanding how new technologies are developed, commercialized and distributed;
  • Drafting and negotiating a transaction;
  • Participating in a cross-disciplinary team that includes businesspeople and engineers;
  • Presenting a set of options, with a recommendation, to a business decision-maker;
  • Model cash flow projections and analyze financial statements;
  • Understanding technology start-ups, financings, M&A, licensing, and employment practices; and
  • Knowing Silicon Valley’s business norms and practices, lingo, and culture.

The first pilot cohort of Tech Edge JD students is mostly heads-down, studying for the July 2021 bar exam. Though it is too early to predict long-term outcomes resulting from the Tech Edge JD, especially as the world emerges from a global pandemic, preliminary results indicate that the cohorts are reaping the benefits from the built-in professional development, networking, and experiential education.

“Thanks to the Tech Edge JD program, I was able to explore several different careers in technology law and policy, eventually landing in my dream career in Internet Policy at Google.”

– Jess Miers, Tech Edge JD ’21 graduate

The 2021 Tech Edge JD graduates leave Santa Clara Law with demonstrable skills and competencies, allowing them to hit the ground running in fast-paced, entrepreneurial Silicon Valley companies and firms.

Laura Lee Norris is director of the Entrepreneurs’ Law Clinic and the Tech Edge J.D. program and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute, Santa Clara University School of Law
Mark Michels, is a lecturer in law, teaching leadership for lawyers, e-discovery, and patent litigation, at Santa Clara University School of Law.