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Is Space Law the New Frontier?

Washington DC Legal DC

Even with its 2,600 lawyers in 79 offices, there was one practice area mega-firm Dentons was missing.

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Now, Dentons has launched a space law practice. US managing partner Mike McNamara, above, tells us the firm wanted to be part of shaping the new industry. Commercial space is a growing industry, as private sector companies pick up lucrative contracts from NASA (eg, Boeing: $2.8B, SpaceX: $1.6B) for rocket parts or to launch cargo up to the International Space Station. NASA's expected to announce a contract for the first private company to shuttle astronauts to the ISS. Whereas old rockets were referred to as "trucks," the new ones are known more as "rental cars," says new space business head Del Smith.

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Del, right, a satellite telecom lawyer for more than 40 years, joined from Jones Day with aviation finance partners Liz Evans and Deepak Reddy. The space business team is starting out with 15 lawyers in offices around the world, but Del tells us he expects it to grow to 20 to 30 shortly. He and Liz have been traveling around Europe to meet with current or potential partners and clients and attend space and satellite conferences. Dentons is hosting two conferences of its own in October and June, covering topics like space debris and anticipatory right of self-defense that Del says "every single company is concerned with." (Is Sandra Bullock free to keynote?)

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The new practice has "two hearts," Del tells us: space business (applying M&A, litigation, and IP to issues around space and satellites) and space law and public policy (tying together new rules and regulations, international treaties, memoranda of understanding, and diplomacy). Another big issue is the future of the American presence in space. (The answer depends largely on whether a private company can put people into orbit, rather than the US relying on other countries' rockets.) Del says he wasn't looking for a move but "truly believes that the Dentons way of practicing law"—which he says is polycentric, entrepreneurial, and organized by industry sector—"is the future."