From cloud computing to the National Security Agency’s PRISM surveillance program, the intersection of technology and law is more prominent than ever.

That’s one reason the University of Pennsylvania Law School is launching its Law & Technology Program, which will expand the school’s existing technology-centered research and forge closer ties with the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Penn hopes to create the “premiere law and technology center on the East Coast,” said professor Christopher Yoo, who is leading the initiative with Penn engineering professor Jonathan Smith.

Yoo envisions an interdisciplinary program that offers annual research conferences, fellowships to train the next generation of law and technology scholars, and extensive outreach to policymakers. It also will foster collaborations with engineering faculty and students.

The centerpiece is a joint degree program offering students a J.D. and a master’s degree in engineering in four years. The joint degree is intended for students with a science or engineering background who are interested in law and technology policy.

Plenty of engineering students go on to MBA programs and eventually progress up the corporate ladder to a point where their scientific backgrounds take a back seat to business responsibilities, Yoo said. Penn’s new joint degree offers an alternative track for students interested in the underlying policy issues at the heart of technology matters such as the Stop Online Privacy Act.

“In patents, copyright, media and Internet regulation, privacy and national security and many other areas, today’s problems are almost always more than just legal problems and require substantive understanding of how the technology works,” Penn law dean Michael Fitts said.

Penn will launch the joint degree program in 2014, and Yoo anticipates that it initially will draw about five students. They will spend their first year at the law school and their second year at the engineering school. During the subsequent two years, students will take classes at both schools, including a capstone class taught by both law and engineering faculty. The high level of integration between the law and engineering coursework will make the new joint degree program unique, Yoo said.

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