America's struggling legal business, once a high-flying profession whose leaders could bill $1,000 per hour, may be turning the corner, thanks to developments both earthly and unearthly.
To be sure, America's legal business has fallen on challenging times. Less than 60 percent of U.S. law school graduates found full-time employment in 2011, compared to more than a 74 percent employment level before the 2008 recession, according to the National Association of Legal Placement. One upshot is that there are fewer students entering law school. The Law School Admission Council says that law school applications have dropped 38 percent since 2010 and are expected to hit a 30-year low this year.
Law firms have been laying off associates, graduates are struggling to land their first jobs and those massive, nose-bleed paychecks that partners used to rake in are less and less common. Supply, in other words, is coming into balance with a reduced post-recession demand for legal services.
In addition, the industry is now preparing for the rise of increased demand for a new kind of legal service ... a demand that comes from outer space.
Consider this: Commercial spaceflights may take off from the New Mexico desert next year with Virgin Galactic, and Planetary Resources is planning to mine near-Earth asteroids for minerals in less than 10 years. Which jurisdiction adjudicates a mishap in orbit? What if two satellites collide? Who pays the bill? And who exactly has an enforceable claim to minerals on an asteroid? Which parties bear responsibility if mining debris in orbit crashes into a satellite or falls to Earth and trashes a building or kills people?
The prospect of such disputes -- which are closer than many realize -- is fueling the creation of space law and programs that focus on space law.
The University of Mississippi Law School, whose nearly 80 percent employment rate last year missed that of top law schools' 90 percent placement rate, has a model space law program. The law school has published the world’s oldest space law journal since 1973, offered courses in space law since the early 2000s and introduced a certificate of air and space law that juris doctorate holders can add on to their degree in the mid-2000s. This August, they introduced a masters program in air and space law.
“It just seems like a natural progression,” Director of the LL.M. program Jacquie Serrao said. “You have to go through air before you get to space.”
She taught eight students in her first air and space law class in 2007. Now her classes max out every semester at 20 students. It’s difficult to count how many students enter the space law field because more than the graduating classes go into space law.
“Although we’ve had the certificate, not everyone decides to get the certificate,” Serrao said. “Some just take the courses and don’t have the certificate but go into space law.”
Michael Dodge graduated with the space law distinction on his degree in 2008, becoming the first U.S. student with a certified space law specialization. He now teaches at Ole Miss and assists with the Journal of Space Law. (Yes, there is such a publication.)
“I do indeed see a growing market for space lawyers, albeit one that is still in its relative infancy,” Dodge said. “Although humanity has been voyaging into space for several decades now, it is only recently that private entities have had any real potential for activity in space.”
As more companies like Virgin Galactic and Space X, which shuttles supplies to the International Space Station, venture into space, space lawyers will be more critical to these businesses’ success, he said. Whether space tourists should be considered astronauts, where air ends and space begins and whether space mining is permissible when an international treaty forbids sovereignty in space are all hot, unsettled questions, and different answers carry different legal consequences for companies.
Already, space lawyers and business lawyers with knowledge of space law work in the U.S. for agencies such as NASA, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force.
“The needs of these agencies for space attorneys can only grow as humanity grows more and more dependent on space-based technology for its needs -- everything from GNSS for mapping, agriculture and simple street directions, to remote sensing used to identify natural disaster areas or to verify treaty implementation,” Dodge said.
Other J.D. and LL.M. space law programs have popped up at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL). Their LL.M. in space, cyber and telecommunications law is in its seventh year and has graduated 34 students. Their law school’s class of 2012 reported 91 percent employment.
Matthew Schaefer, a space law professor at UNL, spoke to New York University’s law school last week about liability issues with space tourism.
“Professor Schaefer reached out to us, trying to popularize the field,” said Amir Badat, an NYU J.D. candidate and the event organizer. “I thought it was interesting topic that I didn’t know much about.”
About 20 students attended the event at NYU, many of them LL.M. candidates interested in space law. Kate Yesberg, an LL.M. candidate studying environmental law, recognized “a lot of crossovers” in Schaefer’s lecture to her own field. Both space law and environmental law frame how people and companies can obtain and use natural resources.
“[Space law] is really an area that’s ripe for interest and research and discussion and scholarship because the commercial side of things is starting to pick up with a lot of public-private partnerships,” Yesberg said. “The basic principles [for international space law] were designed in the Cold War era. The question now is whether the regulatory framework we have now is sufficient.”
Although many schools like NYU do not have formal space law programs, students are entering the field with other legal experience, like space law mock trials. Students from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., won the international Manfred Lachs Moot Court Competition in Beijing last week. Students from Leiden University of the Netherlands won second place and students from South Africa and India were semi-finalists.
Another competition, hosted by the International Air and Space Law Association, has organized an annual moot court competition since 2010 and has held regional competitions in North America, Europe and Asia. Next year they will add regionals in Latin America. The 2014 case involves a government’s emergency-ejected satellite engine colliding with another government’s communications satellite. The mock collision created a dangerous debris cloud in space, and crashed into a vehicle on Earth carrying three children and their parents -- a situation that’s beginning to sound more like news than fiction.
“From the beginning of the space-age, attorneys aware of technological developments were also aware that when man proceeds into space, his problems are bound to follow him,” Dodge said. “Space law attorneys attempt to analyze the best solution to potential problems in space -- not because they think they may see such problems in the future, but that they know they will.”