In the '80s guidance counselors steered students away from law school: "Too many lawyers," they said. But this decade's Internet boom may make those who turned a deaf ear glad they did.
The Internet has spawned a new legal frontier in areas such as copyright, taxation, and privacy. In major U.S. cities, there are at least 53 law firms that now have proficiency in "digital areas of the law," according to legal expert Marie D'Amico.
Nonprofits have drawn the spotlight much of the year by tackling issues of freedom of speech and privacy on the Net; witness the ACLU's much publicized attack on the Communications Decency Act. However, private-sector lawyers also are jumping in, and are busy recruiting online clients and making the words "digital," "electronic," and "online" part of legalese.
Interest is so great that universities are creating courses to train lawyers to understand the medium and the relevance of existing laws to the online world--if they apply at all. Schools that are hip now will boast a very marketable class of 1997, experts say.
"This didn't exist in our firm two years ago," said Neal Friedman, a communications attorney for Pepper and Corazzini. Friedman has felt the expanding influence of the Internet where it counts--in his wallet. "I got fascinated with some of the legal issues surrounding the Internet and developed a practice in that area. This year it accounts for about half of my business and all of my new business."
A few years ago Friedman learned how to get online at American University, where he teaches part time; his firm set up a Web site in June 1995. With the recent consolidation of broadcast companies shrinking his client base, Net law has come along at the perfect time, he said.
And just as they did in response to the boom in entertainment and telecommunications, the nation's law schools are trying to update their courses for the latest economic trend.
"Law in this area is going to be very hot for the next couple of years, at least," said Max Stul Oppenheimer, a University of Maryland School of Law professor. "Every company is going to have to deal with issues regarding worker privacy and email, as well. Those are issues that are going to arise in a company of any size.
"All things being equal, a lawyer who's had exposure to Internet-type issues is going to be preferred."
This spring, Oppenheimer developed a seminar called, "The Law of the Internet," where he discusses whether or not new laws are needed to address online intellectual property rights. He discovered the budding market in his private law practice, where many of his clients are copyright owners.
The University of Maryland's Net law courses are not unique. Others offering courses include: schools within the University of California system, Rutgers University , Syracuse University, American University, , Ohio State University , Chicago-Kent College of Law, Harvard University, and Creighton University.
Most of the courses are electives, but some universities say they might make Internet-related courses mandatory.
Raneta Lawson Mack, an associate professor of law at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, teaches a course on computer technology and the law, and she plans to integrate more study of the Internet into her next course.
Other professors will do the same. For example, criminal law courses will have to consider crime on the Internet. "I think right now what we're seeing is that the Internet is developing its own field of law," she said.
Not everyone agrees. Skeptics say law students won't make big money if they enter "cyberlaw," and they should stick to traditional fields where online technology is merely a tool. Understanding the medium is the key, not digging out a niche that will dry up, they say.
"The issues that tend to come up, like credit card number privacy and fraud, are not particularly new," said Danny Adams, a partner in the international law firm Kelley, Drye, and Warren .
"It's just that technology requires people to rethink how they address legal issues. Students can learn about it when they go into other fields," he said.
But the Net will be a part of law students' lives in one way or another.
Mickie Voges, associate professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, has been teaching about computers and law since 1986. Although she doesn't characterize the Net as a budding or emerging technology, she said law students must understand how to use the Internet to do business.
"We have become highly reliant on it for discussion and research," she said. "I think generally we're all much happier to do everything from that seated position."