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Elsbeth Magilton J.D.: Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law and Policy Touch Every Satellite, Every Phone Call, Every Online Transaction

The world is changing, and it’s nothing like it was even twenty years ago. Most miraculous futuristic things described by sci-fi classics back in the sixties and the seventies are now mundane, if not boring. So, it’s no wonder that education has to keep up with this technological advancement got loose. Apparently, some colleges already offer courses that would have looked quite exotic even ten years ago, like space or cyber law. It sounds quite interesting, yet, thanks to its novelty, it’s not quite clear for most of us what those courses are actually about. Do they find job in the area of their studies afterwards? In order to find out more about it, talked with Elsbeth Magilton J.D., the Executive Director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law, where she oversees program development and strategic growth, program budgets, government and commercial collaborations, research projects and proposals, the Manfred Lachs Moot Court Competition team, online classroom structure and technology deployment, and serves as the main on-campus contact for LL.M., J.S.D. and J.D. students specializing in space, cyber, or telecommunications law. Her current focus areas include commercial space law and policy, cybersecurity and cybercrime, and national security. What made you choose space law as your profession?

Elsbeth Magilton: Like many people in the field – I didn’t choose it exactly. I found it – or more so it found me by way of academics and my background. I was a web developer before I went to law school and that greatly influenced my studies. I focused heavily in cyber law, electronic discovery, cybercrime, cyber security, and so on. At the time the courses were very domestically focused so most of my work was centered on issues facing domestic companies or “local” crimes committed online.

I started my role as the Executive Director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program at the University of Nebraska College of Law with very little space and international law background, relying most heavily on my technical and cyber expertise, but I had a strong basis in administrative law which I quickly realized was very transferable and relevant to many space law issues.

Initially my position here was very logistically focused – enhancing the program and growing our outreach. Over the past 6 years I have added to my responsibilities which included learning space law from my colleagues, beginning performing my own scholarly work, contracting with the Department of Defense (DoD) for research projects pertaining to space and cyber, and lecturing on the subject around the country. Thankfully I have several of the world’s experts here to learn from and collaborate with. I have always been a space “nerd” and love working with the laws and policies that impact technology. It’s been a really natural fit and a fun progression in my career. Are there many students willing to study space law? How many students graduate from your program? How does your program bring together space law, cyber law, and telecommunications law?

Elsbeth Magilton: We are a small but growing group of legal professionals. Compared to the number of students at the law school interested in litigation or other types of traditional practice, we are small (but mighty). One recent focus of mine has been emphasizing the reality that “space lawyers” are first and foremost lawyers. These are individuals who help solve the business and legal problems that face this industry. These are the officers who deal with the international law ramifications of operational decisions.

That is what lawyers do: they solve problems, regardless of the domain. That is our primary goal in training our students.

Over the past ten years 63 individuals have received an LL.M. from our program. An LL.M. is, in essence, a legal master’s degree that builds on top of a Juris Doctorate (J.D., the typical 3 year U.S. law degree). We also encourage the J.D. students at Nebraska Law to specialize in our courses and take advantage of the internship and externship programs we have. We have had about 15 individuals in the past 5 years concentrate their J.D. studies in our program, and that number is growing rapidly each year as space receives more attention in the mainstream media.

We believe that to grow humankind, space, cyber, and telecommunications law is critical to the future of our democracy. Our students bridge the gap between law and technology. As technology continues to evolve and humans continue to reach upwards, the laws and regulations that protect citizens and serve industries must change too. Our alumni are at the forefront of this wave of change. Space, cyber, and telecommunications law and policy touch every satellite, every phone call, every online transaction.

While our students generally pick a focus area for their thesis, we require our students to take classes in all three areas. Why? You can’t launch a space vehicle or operate a communications satellite without licensing communication spectrum from the FCC. You can’t discuss cyber warfare without addressing the possibility of satellites as targets. The connections go on and on. These three areas are intrinsically linked by the technology they require and the laws and policies that impact them. Nebraska law is the one program in the world to specialize in all three and require our graduates to obtain a well-rounded understanding of the changing legal frontier. What do space lawyers actually do? What are the specific things that a space lawyer knows, and a regular lawyer doesn’t?

Elsbeth Magilton: Space law is the study of the laws and regulations governing not just activities in space but also activities on Earth necessary to launch objects into space or to communicate with objects in space. This encompasses all national and international laws governing such activities. Activities regulated involve innovative new industries like commercial space flight, scientific endeavors such as experiments heading to the International Space Station, the business sector and aerospace companies launching and operating satellites, as well as military applications and uses of space.

Attorneys specializing in space law learn a unique mixture of international, U.S. administrative, and industry specific law, policy, history, and economics. Our Space Law class is a capstone course, touching on torts, property, foreign relations, insurance, and many other areas of the law.

As the question eludes to, in many ways a space lawyer inside a space or satellite company is in essence in-house corporate counsel and their primary directive is to serve the company. One thing that I believe is unique to this industry – and several others within their own structure – is the highly regulated nature of the activity and the inherent “newness.” It is a challenge to give solid legal advice with little history to draw upon. That is a unique challenge these attorneys face. What does it take to become a space lawyer, and how many of those willing to become space lawyers actually became ones?

Elsbeth Magilton: Many (in fact, most) space lawyers start their career in other areas to earn their chops as attorneys. Many continue to work in multiple practice areas once they begin in space law. The most important factor is legal skill and experience, but because the career path is often a long one, I also believe passion for the subject area is critical. Individuals need to be relentless in their pursuit of the career because the industry, while growing, is small and usually draws upon professionals that have a combination of subject matter expertise and relevant legal or business experience. I often advice young professionals to focus on publishing scholarly work in the subject area and attending 1-2 conferences each year to stay connected to the field while also finding legal employment that is related, if not exactly on point. What’s the employment rate of space law graduates? Is it difficult for them to find a job in this area? Is it the private sector that offers more jobs to your graduates, or they find themselves in the public sector more often? Is the profession itself rare, or there are many space law experts out there already?

Elsbeth Magilton: Because our program is highly competitive we only enroll between 8-10 students per academic year to ensure individualized attention during the demanding course year. As such, we have just 68 LL.M. alumni as a data pool. To that end, we have a high employment rate, but I like to be transparent that the numbers are quite small. Of our 68 LL.M. alumni, 63 are currently employed in J.D. required or preferred positions. 53 of those alumni are in space, cyber, and telecommunications fields or in positions they consider adjacent to that field/their studies here. So, roughly 80% of our LLM alumni are employed and in a position that they characterize as related to their work in the program, be that space, cyber, or telecom focused.

To give you an idea of the different career sectors in the space and cyber realm, they range from private industry (launch providers, satellite manufacturers, etc), to policy (State Dept, FAA, think tanks), to national security (military, civilians working for DoD, defense contractors). Telecommunications also opens a broader door, as more (larger) companies are already entrenched in that regulatory scheme.

This expertise and practice area is much bigger and more common than the general public would expect, but when compared to say real-estate law or criminal law it is small. The recent interest in space by the new administration is already causing a major shift in the perception of the field and in the work to be done. Realistically speaking, do we need more specifically educated space lawyers for our advance into space? Why?

Elsbeth Magilton: I do believe the space industry is growing and that more attorneys will be called upon to serve these efforts in the coming years. Of course I think space-specific education is incredibly useful to these endeavors, but bigger than that I believe that we need more attorneys trained to think critically about technology deployment and oversight, and be more well-versed in international law, regardless of their practice area.

We live in a globalized society with technology development outpacing everyone. Be they in the space industry or the insurance industry, attorneys need to approach problems with an interdisciplinary eye and think globally. The future of legal education will be interdisciplinary and require collaboration with technicians.

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