After becoming the world’s largest law firm by headcount, Dentons, the 7,300-lawyer firm, has announced tentative plans to open an office on the International Space Station creating the first galactic law firm for its ever growing Swiss verein network.
Prior to the announcement, Dentons Global Chairman Joe Andrew was able to secure the backing of the five participating space agencies including the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Hugh Glennan.
“Recruiting the first astronaut-lawyers turned out to be less of a challenge due to the glut of recent law school graduates,” said Andrew. The Dentons chair was also able to pair Glennan with the dean of West Houston School of Law, Michael Wittenberg. West Houston, a 50-minute drive from Johnson Space Center, will partner with NASA to create a new academy that will offer the first combined astronaut training and LL.M. program.
Inspiration for the move came to Andrew and Dentons’ global CEO Elliott Portnoy, after screening last year’s Academy Award nominated motion picture “The Martian.” In the film, Matt Damon’s character Mark Whatney concludes that outer space is, due to a legal technicality, international waters, so maritime law applies.
Later, after viewing the PBS two-part series, A Year In Space, featuring astronaut Scott Kelly, Portnoy and Andrew solidified the plans noting that it is almost impossible to spend a year in space without some legal conflict arising.
For legal scholars, the unprecedented move, has received a mixed response. Erwin Chemerinsky, the constitutional law scholar and dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law commented that choice of law could present “a real challenge,” while Stanford Law’s Deborah Rhode applauded the move for providing new opportunities for recent law school graduates.
Outer space comes on the heels of recent expansions by Dentons into China, Latin America and Luxembourg. There are 196 countries in the world today and Dentons presently has more than 125 offices across more than 50 of them. When asked about the space strategy over additional terrestrial offices, Portnoy explained, “this is not growth for growth’s sake. We are creating the law firm of the future and this move is fundamental to our polycentric approach.”
On April 1, 2017, Dentons, NASA, and West Houston will announce the first class of astronaut-lawyers with a fully operational office planned for a year from that date. SpaceX will provide transportation to and from the space station, while back-office support will be provided by the operations center in Tallahassee, Fla.
“Law offices in outer space may seem needless now, but realizing the benefits of the first galactic expansion requires tremendous effort and extraordinary leadership,” said Kent Zimmermann, a law firm consultant.
“Starting with the space station makes sense, but I fully expect Dentons to be the first law firm to open offices on the Moon, and eventually Mars.”
Casey Sullivan contributed to this article.