Find out what it takes to become an open source lawyer

What to know before jumping into a career as an open source lawyer

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You enjoy thinking about free software licenses, you're angry about the latest patent troll, and you've said IANAL so many times that you've considering becoming an open source lawyer. What now?

By the numbers

First, going to law school is a gamble. Recent American law school graduates must fight fiercely for one of the few jobs that can cover their massive debt, and roughly 50% fail the California bar. And, the open source gamble is bigger, because the opportunities are even fewer.

Only a few dozen new grads a year are hired to do anything even vaguely involving open source. Only a few dozen lawyers in the entire world dedicate more than a quarter of their time to open source. Only a lucky handful, like those at Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) and Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), work primarily directly for communities and volunteer developers.

Note that international law schools are less expensive, but fewer open source legal jobs exist outside the US, so overall the gamble is similar.

Next, before we dive into being an open source lawyer, consider that there are many other routes to making the world's software better, like being an engineer, usability expert, or an activist.

What do you hope to accomplish?

If you do want to fight for one of those few jobs, ask yourself what you are actually looking to accomplish. Think of most open source law as a niche within "technology transactions" (or "tech trans" for short). Tech trans is the branch of law concerned with selling or licensing intellectual property rights. While this focus is commonly on licensing proprietary technology, many of the same principles apply to open source licensing, and usually tech trans lawyers are the ones who get the call to deal with open source issues.

Two good introductions to the day-to-day work of tech trans lawyers are The Tech Contracts Handbook and A Primer on IP Licensing. If reading (and highlighting and underlining) these books whets your appetite, you might be ready to get more serious about a tech trans career. If you fall asleep partway through reviewing your first indemnity clause then that might be a sign.

Tech trans isn't the only way to become a lawyer who works on open source, of course. The biggest open source organizations need people with many different skillsets. Several members of Red Hat's legal team were patent attorneys, and Wikimedia's last general counsel was a former federal prosecutor. However, if you want to work day-to-day with open source, tech trans is your best bet.

How to get a tech trans job

You can improve your odds of landing a job as a tech trans attorney, and at getting and succeeding at open source work once you get that job, if you:

  • Have a tech job first. Working for a few years in tech is the best thing you can do to help you succeed in technology law. Best case, you realize you love that career and skip law school (and law school debt) altogether. Worst case, you have stories to discuss in interviews and useful experience working with code and engineers. Don't become a paralegal—taking this route is common route for non-tech lawyers, but it doesn't give you relevant tech experience.
  • Participate in an open community. I've had college students who have never contributed to an open source project tell me they want to become open source lawyers. But contributing gives you hands-on experience, builds your network, and helps you understand the logic and processes behind the licenses you'll have to interpret.
  • Pick a top law school with a strong IP faculty. Lawyers are notoriously snobby when hiring new graduates, so apply to schools that have a strong overall reputation and a good intellectual property faculty. Acceptance into these schools is very difficult, and if you don't get in, you have a good (and relatively cheap) early warning about the odds of getting a job after graduation.
  • Take more than IP courses, like advanced classes in contracts. To be a great tech trans (and open source) lawyer, you need to know about copyrights, patents, and trademark, but reading and drafting contracts is every bit as important. Introductory contracts courses don't cover those topics, so seek out advanced contracts courses. Knowledge of tax, corporate law, and litigation is also helpful, because open source companies often encounter those issues.
  • Consider working in-house your first summer. At top law schools, most students look to get a law firm job their first summer. Consider looking for jobs at tech companies instead—they're usually very hands on and will give you a good background as you start career.
  • Be willing to move to California. While North Carolina, New York, and Massachusetts have some terrific open source jobs, you'll maximize your chance of getting work by going to California because many law firms (and clients) who do tech work are based there.

Where to start your career

Starting your career at a software company rather than a law firm is possible, but doing so is often considered a career handicap because junior in-house counsel tend to do the repetitive, less-diverse work. Instead, the best way to get tech trans (and open source) work is to go to a law firm that already does a lot of it. The senior lawyers at these firms use their reputation to bring the work in, and then the junior lawyers (hopefully you) actually get to do the work.

Your law school's hiring office can help you find rankings of firms that do tech trans, like this one, and explain how to apply. When you interview, let lawyers know that (1) open source is an area you're interested in and have relevant skills for, but (2) make clear to them that you're interested in all the other aspects of tech trans—because you will be doing plenty of traditional licensing and startup work as well.

Bottom line on the open source lawyer

Advising clients on open source issues is a ton of fun—you often get to do deep dives into the technology to understand how it works, you can have a huge impact on their products and bottom line, and you can also help build healthy communities of paid developers and volunteers who are creating better tech.

However, getting there is a very long road that not many people can get on or stay on. Taking the steps above can help get you there. Good luck!

Deep thanks to the many members of Red Hat's legal team who helped me start my career, and who may recognize their own advice!


About the author

Luis Villa - I am a lawyer and community-builder, and currently the co-founder and general counsel of Tidelift. In previous lives, I've been: Deputy General Counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation; a board member of the Open Source Initiative, and chair of the licensing committee; an associate at Greenberg Traurig, working for a variety of clients on technology transactions and licensing issues; an attorney at Mozilla, where I led the revision of the Mozilla...