Cornell law professor James Grimmelmann

The BuddyBear looks much like any other cuddly teddy bear from the front, except for the small camera embedded in its furry white chest.

Turn the bear around, however, and the screen mounted to its back displays emoticons that translate the emotions of people in real time. The BuddyBear is the handiwork of two master of laws students and two computer science students in Cornell University’s Manhattan-based technology program. It’s designed to help autistic children decipher emotions—a concept many struggle with.

The camera on the front of the bear takes photos of people, then the software analyzes their facial expression to determine their emotion. Children then see that emotion, in emoticon form, displayed on the back screen.

Prototype of the BuddyBear.

The team hasn’t tested their BuddyBear prototype with autistic children yet, but the array of pediatricians and behavioral specialists they’ve consulted with love the idea, said Adam Felix, an LL.M. graduate who worked on the project this spring.

“They all said it was a good idea because the teddy bear makes the technology much more approachable for these kids,” said Felix, a lawyer from the Czech Republic. “They aren’t scared of it.”

Felix was among the 12 students in the inaugural cohort of Cornell’s LL.M. in law, technology, and entrepreneurship—a first-of-its kind program designed to not only prepare lawyers to advise startup clients, but gain experience building their own startups.

In the case of BuddyBear, Felix and his LL.M. classmate weren’t simply advising their computer science partners on the legal aspects on the project. They were helping design the product from the ground up.

“We are actually building products that are fully legally compliant from the very beginning,” Felix said. “In normal legal life, we’re playing catch up with the client and trying to work backwards to make their products compliant.”

Cornell Tech students working on a startup project.

Cornell Tech—the Ivy League university’s tech-focused campus soon to relocate to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island—offers a unique environment for lawyers to learn the ins and outs of law, technology and startup culture, according to Cornell law professor Charles Whitehead, who designed and oversees the LL.M. program. The small campus has about 220 students, the bulk of whom are seeking advanced degrees in business or computer science, including a small contingent of LL.M. students. The students take some interdisciplinary courses together and also collaborate on projects meant to solve real-world problems faced by companies and nonprofits. They also create their own startups in the spring semester. (Cornell Tech has been located in temporary space in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, but is moving to its glistening new Roosevelt Island campus in the fall. Roosevelt Island is a 2-mile long island east of Manhattan.)

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The LL.M. program is cutting-edge example of how legal educators are seeking to give law students practical, hands-on experiences while on campus. Clinics and other experiential coursework are growing in popularity at law schools, but few programs offer students the chance to launch their own entrepreneurial ventures.

“The idea is to let them really understand the nature of the business and understand the thought process others have,” Whitehead said of placing LL.M. students alongside technology specialists and business students. “They can better represent them and work with them, and recognize that the answer to a legal problem isn’t necessarily a legal answer. It may be a change to the tech. It may be a business solution.”

The fledgling program has thus far won high praise from students and law firm partners who represent startups.

“I think it’s incredible training,” said Stephane Levy, a partner in Cooley’s emerging companies practice who guest lectured in the LL.M. program. He’s also the hiring chair of the law firm’s New York office.

“The very specific content that’s taught to these students and the fact that it’s taught by practitioners who are on the front lines every day of the New York tech ecosystem—I think there’s a lot of value there,” Levy said.

The program has seen early success in launching graduates into startup practices and entrepreneurship.

One recent LL.M. graduate has accepted a leadership position at an existing startup with $1.5 million in seed funding, others are planning to pursue their own startup ideas, and still more have accepted jobs at law firms that advise such clients.

“It was very intensive,” said Johanan Ottensooser, a recent LL.M. graduate who is now the chief strategy officer at Datalogue,  a data management startup that grew out of a Cornell Tech student project the previous year. “We did a full master of laws, seven hackathons, advised two Israeli companies and built two products from scratch. In my case I also helped raise money for a startup I then joined. It was a lot of work, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The Midas Touch

Years of international travel made it clear to Elizabeth Weber that collecting value-added tax (VAT) refunds at airports is a total drag.

LL.M. graduate Elizabeth Weber (left) with classmate Jayna Patel (right) in the Negev Desert in Israel.

The refunds, for which foreign visitors buying goods to take home are eligible, require people to retain receipts, fill out paperwork and stand in long lines at the airport before catching their flights home. Hence, many travelers never bother to collect their refunds.

Could an app streamline the cumbersome process and eliminate all the paperwork and lines? Weber, an LL.M. student, and three Cornell Tech computer scientists thought so, thus they partnered last semester to create Midas.  (Slogan: We want to put money back where it belongs, in your pocket.)

The app links up with the user’s bank accounts and sends notifications when they make VAT-eligible purchases. It then prompts users to snap a photo of their receipts. The app organizes all the receipts, automatically completes the VAT refund paperwork and sends another message when the user is at the airport, directing them to kiosks where they can complete the refund process. The refunds show up in the user’s bank account within a week.

The app would take 30 cents of each dollar refunded.

For the Midas team, building the app was the easy part. Figuring out how to manage all the players and regulators involved in the VAT process around the globe wasn’t so simple.

“There are so many different players in game,” Weber said. “You have local governments and national governments, you have customs and the airports themselves. How do we actually implement this huge idea? This is a multibillion market.”

The team made inroads with some VAT players during the semester, but it is letting Midas sit for a few months postgraduation before deciding whether to pursue it further. Weber is interviewing with law firms now, and most of her teammates landed jobs at major companies. But the experience of conceptualizing and executing the app was invaluable, Weber said.

“Working with these teams has shown me how integral attorneys are for emerging growth companies, and how much pleasure I derive from being the person to say, ‘We need to think about incorporation. We need to think about intellectual property,’ while at the same time balancing the business considerations.”

The startup projects not only gave the LL.M. students experience working on teams, but helped them unlearn some lawyerly habits that are not useful in the startup world, said professor James Grimmelmann.

“Lawyers have this desire to be certain of anything before you speak or act, and to hedge any decision with the level of uncertainly about it,” he said. “When you’re sending a tech project out in the world within a few weeks, ‘It depends on a few things we know the answer to for years,’ isn’t really helpful.”

Similarly, working with the LL.M. students impressed upon the computer science and business students that taking legal and regulatory considerations into account at the initial design stage of any venture helps remove hurdles down the road, Grimmelmann said.

The startup projects formed the cornerstone of the LL.M. program, but students also spent a lot of time in law-focused and interdisciplinary classes in addition to serving as outside legal counsel to other startups.

They took classes in intellectual property, cybersecurity and employment law, which were more advanced than the versions offered to J.D. students, Whitehead said. They also took two transactional law courses that spanned the academic year and relied heavily on the teaching of law firm partners like Levy who represent startups.

In addition, the LL.M. students took a series of interdisciplinary classes designed to introduce them to the technology and business side of startups. The entrepreneurial finance class was taught by business faculty, while computer science faculty taught an introduction to technology course, where the lawyers learned basic coding skills.

Next year, the program will offer LL.M. students more law-focused electives and beef up the technical aspects of the curriculum, Grimmelmann said.

The law students also had the option of participating in a class in which they paired with business students to advise several Israeli startups. The teams traveled Israel for several weeks over the winter break to meet with their clients and make presentations before Israeli venture capitalists. Weber, Felix, and Ottensooser each participated.

Saving Money

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wanted to boost the savings of low-income New Yorkers.

It was one of several hundred requests Cornell Tech received this year from companies and organizations, after administrators solicited ideas for actual problems its students could tackle in the fall semester. The projects allowed the students to get their feet wet before building their own startups from scratch in the spring.

The Gates Foundation query caught the eye of Ottensooser, who worked as an associate in the Australian office of global law firm King & Wood Mallesons before enrolling in the LL.M. program. He joined with engineers and a business student to create an app that incentivized users to put money into savings during months of income upswings, to help compensate for months when their their incomes declined.

Consumer research told them that income stability was actually more important to their target audience than increasing overall income, Ottensooser said. Thus, the team zeroed in on how to make saving money fun and easy. Their app, linked to users’ bank accounts, would alert them when their income was relatively high and prompt them to put some funds in savings. By saving, users would be entered into a savings lottery—which offers a chance to win money prizes. Research has shown such lotteries boost savings rates.

The team also had to make the program function through text messages, since some low-income users don’t have smartphones. They presented their idea to the Gates Foundation, which indicated it would continue to work on the project.

“I learned how to speak to engineers, how to communicate with business people, and how to work together to get stuff done,” Ottensooser said.

Word about the LL.M. program seems to getting out. Applications quadrupled for the coming academic year, Whitehead said, but administrators aren’t expanding the program just yet. Only 15 percent of those who applied have been offered a spot next year.

Whitehead personally interviewed each candidate in person or over Skype, and it was not mere small talk. A day before each interview, Whitehead asked applicants to develop a startup pitch and to provide their input on a hypothetical legal question. The purpose wasn’t to asses their legal knowledge or see if they have a solid startup idea. Rather, it was to gauge how they react under pressure and how they respond to criticism, he said.

“We want students who feel comfortable enough in their own skin that they can take criticism or think a bit different, and take pushback and respond on their feet,” Whitehead said.

Ottensooser has his own take on whom the program is right for.

“You shouldn’t be taking this degree just because you don’t like the job you’re in,” he said. “You shouldn’t pick this degree because you think technology is cool. You should choose it because technology is central to your practice, central to your passion as a lawyer.”


Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ