So You Want to Be a Space Lawyer

I receive inquiries from people, both law students and recent graduates,  interested in practicing space law. I have a pretty standard spiel, and since the semester is starting for law students, I thought now might be a good time to share. Hopefully, you haven’t selected quite all your classes yet.

Take a course in administrative law. It’s the law that governs how regulatory agencies issue regulations for different industries, how they license everything from nuclear reactors to rocket launches, and how they bring enforcement actions against malefactors such as pilots, polluters, and pesticide purveyors who do the things they do but do them wrong.

Agencies operate under legal constraints. A regulator may not just wake up one morning and start issuing rules. His agency must first propose the rules and allow time for public comment. The regulations must be clear enough that a person of ordinary intelligence can tell what is forbidden and what is required. Likewise, an agency may not simply demand money from someone who may have violated one of its regulations. It must provide the alleged violator an opportunity for a hearing. Legal procedural requirements apply to those hearings, and there are lots of cases which serve as precedent. Whether you work for a government agency or the private sector, an understanding of administrative law and the obligations and constraints it imposes on regulators is vital. It is also very interesting, because it is the law of governance and how to do it properly–so long as we set aside the sticky issue of how the regulatory agencies seem to have merged all three constitutional functions: they write laws, they carry them out, and they have their own administrative law judges.

Another good class might be one on federal procurement regulation. The U.S. government is a big customer to aerospace companies. Procurement regulations govern contracts between the U.S. government and its contractors. Also, take corporate and securities law. Start up companies will hire you young, and they need someone who can do everything.   I took public international law and the law of the sea, the former because of the Outer Space Treaties and the latter because it seemed like it might offer parallels to space. The international law turned out to be more helpful.

What if you are out of school? Get involved in one of the many space advocacy groups or a trade advocacy group such as the Satellite Industry Association or the Space Transportation Association.  There are many more.  Don’t just go to the meetings. Get involved in the working groups. Doing this will help you get to know others involved in the area, demonstrate your interest and capabilities, and let people know that you show up when you say you’re going to (that counts for a lot—really).  Also, the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition always needs volunteers to act as coaches and judges.

If you cannot get a job in space law itself, working in any regulatory field (think EPA, FERC, etc) helps ground you in the regulatory and legal principles that apply to federal agency regulation of space law by the FAA, the FCC, and NOAA. I started out doing telecommunications and black lung work. Both were helpful in my transition to space law.

Finally, if you are taking Constitutional law, get a hold of Robert Bork’s The Tempting of America.  It helps tremendously in realizing why that area of the law is so blindingly weird and hard to understand.  I was at sea in that class half the time, wondering where the heck the Constitution said what the Justices said it said. Bork explains all, in an annoyingly even handed way, explaining how in the country’s first century the court found economic rights that weren’t there and now the court looks for and finds other rights that may not be there.  If you read even just the first third of the book, maybe halfway through the semester so you will recognize the cases he discusses, you will be remarkably enlightened and have a much better time of it in ConLaw.  I read it decades too late, but it still helped retroactively, maybe just because it made me feel better.

UPDATE later in the day:  I forgot to mention, there are three LLM programs in space law that I know of. Canada’s McGill offers an LLM in air and space law. The University of Mississippi’s school of law also offers an LLM in air and space law.  The University of Nebraska offers an LLM degree in space, cyber, and telecommunications law, and its LLM courses are available to JD candidates. Also, there are a number of other law schools that offer classes in space law.



2 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Space Lawyer

  1. Hi Laura,

    Thank you for putting this information and advice out there!
    I just want to clarify that our LLM courses (at the University of Mississippi) are also open to JD students (and we also do have a concentration in Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law available for our JD students).

    • Thanks for the information, Andrea. I’m really glad to hear you all have kept a JD path for those interested in focusing on space.

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