Internet think tank catapults law school students into privacy field


An Internet privacy think tank is showing graduate students the future of law.

The Future of Privacy Forum, based in Washington, D.C., has formed a new partnership with Washington and Lee University School of Law that will provide courses, internships, networking and job opportunities for third-year law students in the burgeoning area of privacy law. The think tank selected two students as fellows to work on policy issues around privacy, said FPF Executive Director Jules Polonetsky.

“When it comes to new technology issues that are challenging [tech companies], we’re the leading place they come to when they ask, ‘What should the rules be?'” said Polonetsky, a former New York City Consumer Affairs commissioner who also served at AOL as chief privacy officer. “We’re hoping
this will help create a bridge for law students in this exciting new area. They’re interested, but don’t usually take courses that prepare them to
give sophisticated advice to senior privacy executives.”

Polonetsky said students and graduates who interned at FPF have scored jobs at government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, and in legal departments at companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Nielsen. FPF also has relationships with Stanford, Georgetown and George Washington University law schools, but this is the first time current students at Washington and Lee, about three hours from D.C., will be able to work there.

FPF also has a connection to Washington and Lee through one of the think tank’s cofounders, Christopher Wolf, an alumnus of the school. Wolf is also director of the privacy and information management practice at the law firm Hogan Lovells.

The two Washington and Lee fellows are currently working on privacy issues around connected cars, which are equipped with Internet access and a wireless local area network, and how attorneys general play a role in privacy enforcement.

Brant Hellwig, the dean of the School of Law, said in an interview that he wants students to become exposed to a new, exciting legal field. He said the school already offers classes in cyber crimes and Internet commerce, but he is looking to expand the offerings as the relationship with FPF takes off.

“We certainly have seen an uptick in student interest in these topics, because they’re kind of at the forefront of an emerging and rapidly developing legal field,” Hellwig said. “If you look at companies interested in hiring people to help them address these issues, they’re catchy companies. The whole tech sector is appealing to law students because it’s outside of the traditional idea of big law. There’s something exciting about that.”

The topic of privacy could even become a specialization area for students in the near future, he added.

“Down the road, we can see a certificate in privacy law saying [the students] had a significant courseload in this field,” Hellwig said. We don’t have that now, but if this relationship proves productive like we hope it will, and the field continues to take off, we think this would be attractive to employers.”

The partnership also coincides with new offices near Farragut Square for FPF, which launched about eight years ago. At that time, Polonetsky said, few students and graduates knew what kinds of careers they could pursue in privacy law.

“When we started, we had to hunt for [students] and I had to pay them,” he said. “Today, we are swamped with resumes.”

He said interest in privacy issues — similar to the push to fill cybersecurity jobs by creating new curricula and programs in higher education institutions — will only continue to grow as companies need more college graduates with expertise in the field.

“Frankly, every
company now is about smartphones, smart watches, smart cities, biometrics,
wearables, facial recognition — all those things were once science fiction,” Polonetsky said. “Being able to understand the legal and strategic issues
around data has become critical for retail, for transportation. It has opened up
new opportunities for young people who can be both sophisticated about law and
technology and policy issues.”

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