Apr 18, 2018

Arriving as an Attorney, Leaving as an Academic

By Christopher Fischer

Christopher Fischer and his wife in Stanford

During the first practice of the Stanford Running Club, everyone in the group was asked to reveal their happy place in order to get to know each other a little bit. I couldn’t help but say “The Farm” – the nickname given to the University’s campus, as it was built on the farmland of the founding couple, the Stanfords. I was in my second quarter at the Law School as a visiting Ph.D. student and was starting to feel how transformative the experience would be for my entire life.

I came to California on a research stint for my Ph.D. thesis in law, which I’m writing at the Max-Planck-Institute for Innovation and Competition in Munich. In Germany, earning a Ph.D. as a lawyer does not inevitably mean that you are pursuing an academic career. After graduating with a J.D., numerous lawyers go on to earn a Ph.D. even though they want to go into private practice – similar to an engineer who will work in industry after earning a doctorate. Furthermore, the title of “Doktor” is perceived as a symbol for one’s qualifications. People in Germany would be skeptical being treated by a medical doctor without the ominous “Dr.” in front of the name, and equally tend to feel more at ease being advised by an attorney who holds this degree.

Fulbright Visiting Researcher Day in San Francisco

I enjoyed academic work during law school enormously, yet never considered it as a career path. I always leaned towards legal practice. I thought I wanted to work closely with technology companies, help them prosper through legal advice and thereby contribute to technological progress. I’m excited about new technologies and coming to Silicon Valley – the hotbed of applied sciences and entrepreneurship – had been a dream of mine since I started law school. During my stay, I volunteered for a non-profit, originally started as a collaboration between Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that organizes monthly panel discussions on disruptive technologies with a focus on their economic relevance to both incumbents and start-ups. It was highly engaging and I thought that building a law practice advising such companies on doing business in Europe would be my way to go in the future. And yet, even though I was only feet away from the world’s leading tech companies and regularly came into contact with them at events like these, I spent my days indulging in research – not acquiring future clients.

Meeting Fulbrighters in San Francisco

I’m highly interested in other cultures and their legal thinking, especially in America’s. For my thesis, I am comparing how copyright law in the US and Germany relates to technological progress. My advising professor at Stanford, with his crystal clear and illuminating writing, has been a key figure in this area for decades. Working with him was an immense inspiration. Our discussions on current topics of my thesis not only brought me closer to American legal scholarship but to being an academic. It was also fascinating to me how he incorporated thoughts from our meetings into one of his courses that I attended. Thus for the first time, I witnessed the lively cycle: from doing research to discussing it among scholars and then teaching it in the classroom – and all the way back again, as the lectures gave me new ideas for my research. It made me realize that what is being taught is not just some handed-down truth, but rather the current state of scholarly discussion, which is in constant flux. It was nothing short of a wonder to understand how the research I was doing was embedded in the academic system which feeds into the expansion of human knowledge. I had only marveled at scientific endeavors that make such contributions, like space missions sending probes to explore extraterrestrial worlds up close. I thought I would support such groundbreaking progress with legal advice. But I realized just then that what I was truly passionate about all along was doing the actual research myself. Research in law might not be aimed at understanding the natural world, but instead at developing the framework in which all human action takes place – including science. To me, that is the most fascinating subject imaginable. Contributions to legal scholarship have the potential to shed light on and improve upon every conceivable legal interaction.

Floor tiles in the archway of the Main Quad

Stanford had become my happy place. I felt confident about what I was doing – not wishing to be anywhere else, doing anything else. The community made it easy to embrace this choice too. I’m grateful for the support of the Fulbright Commission and the network of grantees and alumni. I’ve had wonderful conversations with other researchers from the US and all around the world, which were key elements to my personal development. They also enabled me to see Europe from an American perspective, and not the other way around. All of these unique encounters strengthened my belief that the continents have a lot to learn from each other and even more to share. The Fulbright experience doesn’t feel like an isolated period in time either, but rather like a grand beginning that keeps inspiring me and carrying me forward. It was life-changing and opened my eyes to where I find purpose in life.

One night while working late, I went to get some fresh air and came across golden floor tiles, shimmering in the dark in the archway of the Main Quad – the oldest building on campus. Starting in 1892, one year after the University’s founding, there is one tile for every year. Following the tiles was taking a walk through time. I could almost hear the discussions, disproven theories and scientific breakthroughs of the times. When I reached the present year 2017, I had hardly left a quarter of the archway behind me and gasped at the long and unwritten future in front: a future that we can all help to create and shape. Let’s work together to make it a bright one.

Christopher Fischer, Doctoral Fellow, Max-Planck-Institute for Innovation and Competition, Munich, Germany
2016-2017 Fulbright Foreign Student to Stanford Law School

Go back