Jeff John Roberts / Journalist at the Intersection of Law, Culture and New Tech

Jeff John Roberts grew up in Vancouver, studied at McGill Law (2004), earned an MA from Columbia Journalism School (2010), and now lives in Brooklyn. He has always been fascinated by journalism and the media business and, after working three years as a lawyer (Ont and NY), he decided to try his hand at being a full-time writer. From clerking at the Federal Court of Canada, working as counsel for the CRTC, to representing aboriginal clients in private practice, he now reports about IP, blockchain and cyber security for Fortune. He likes to watch baseball, drink bourbon, explore New York and go camping. Follow him and his work on Twitter!

Jeff, the IP aficionado.

Jeff, the IP aficionado.

1. Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

No, I worked a lot of manual jobs when I was younger so the world of lawyers and other professionals always struck me as foreign and removed. I felt privileged simply to have obtained a BA (neither of parents had one - my father was a miner), and so getting into law school was hard to get my head around at first.

2. What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?

I always enjoyed writing and contributing to the McGill student papers, and also freelancing for newspaper and magazines. I always felt more passionate about media than law because journalism lets you tell a new story each day in crisp and lively prose.

But after getting a clerkship, I thought "oh well," I should article. The clerkship was good training but, frankly, it was a lonely and often deadly boring experience (though I might have been one of the only ones to feel this way). 

And after finishing the clerkship and writing my bar, I thought "I guess I should practice." So I did. I worked for a year as counsel to the CRTC in life-sucking concrete edifice in Hull, QC where people—even those in their 20s—talked about pension a lot. Fed up with that, I left to work in private practice in northern Ontario where my clients were Ojibway bands and residential school survivors. This was more interesting and more rewarding, but still I found journalism more exciting. So finally, I left to do an MA at Columbia and change careers for good.

3. What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?

I really enjoyed the intellectual crackle of the place. I came in expecting to dread the people and love the law, but it worked out the other way around. I drew enormous stimulation from the people around me but often found the law a bore. 

But not entirely. I became fascinated with the use and abuse of intellectual property—the idea of awarding monopolies over creativity and ideas—and write about it to this day in my reporting. I also enjoyed administrative law (how to run shit) and legal philosophy.

Jeff catching up on world politics in his kitchen during his time at McGill Law.

Jeff catching up on world politics in his kitchen during his time at McGill Law.

4. What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?

I became frustrated with the political group think in the legal community, and the claims by certain professors that their political views were entirely rooted in law. 

The teaching of "legal meth" was deeply flawed as the Faculty ignored the movement to make legal materials open source—and instead surrendered to Lexis/Nexis et al.

The Canadian bar societies are an anachronistic disgrace. Compare the prices and process of LSUC versus New York state and you'll see what I mean. 

5. Do you still see law all around you?

Yes, after McGill, it's impossible not to see legal norms imbued into all sorts of everyday activities. I also appreciate the analytic rigour a legal education supplies. Lawyers are very good at identifying the nub of any given issue, and getting to the point—I'm often frustrated by the inability of many journalists to do this.

6. You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them? 

Try and participate in everything you can. Give everyone you meet a chance. You have to be sharp, tough and smart to succeed, but this doesn't mean you can't be kind as well.

Jeff at an interview at Cheddar, the online news service from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Jeff at an interview at Cheddar, the online news service from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

7. What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!

I get up around 7:30 and review news related to tech and the law—stories about privacy, IP, surveillance and so on. I may write a story or two from home, and then go into the office at Time Inc in lower Manhattan where I work on longer features for the web or the print magazine. 

My days can also include travel to tech conferences in SF or Atlanta, and source meetings in TriBeCa with prosecutors, FBI agents or corporate counsel.

8. If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

Read more books, including fiction. I try to read things unrelated to my job because it is a great way to stay apprised of the larger world around us. Many of us work very hard in particular fields and it's easy to lose site of the bigger picture. Books, especially novels, keep us rooted. 

9. Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that).

I wish I'd taken tax law. It's a foundation for a lot of other professions and society as a whole.