Spotlight article for Vermont Law School alumni magazine Loquitur (Fall 2015)
Alex Urbelis JD’05
Alex Urbelis, Chief Executive Officer of the specialized infosec provider, Black Chambers Inc., and a partner in the Blackstone Law Group, began his career as a hacker. In the mid-nineties, Alex was a fifteen-year-old, harnessing the most expansive global network of that time—the telephone system—to facilitate dialogue with hackers from around the world. A bank of pay phones in a Citigroup lobby in New York City became the site for these international conversations, inspired by 2600 Magazine (The Hacker Quarterly), and a young Alex eagerly took part in the exchange of knowledge, stories, and banter. He went on to pursue a philosophy degree at SUNY Stony Brook, financing his education through work as a software programmer, but all the while growing increasingly interested in how technology shapes free speech and public interest.
Enrolling in the JD program at Vermont Law School, Alex focused on information technology law, eagerly embracing opportunities to apply hacker philosophy (constant learning with a mindset of openness and respect for ideas) to learn from “within” rather than “without.” He worked for the Army JAG, and with the Technical Analysis Group of Dartmouth’s Institute for Security Technology Studies, a national center for information security and counterterrorism research and analysis, as a research associate. He became a graduate fellow in the Office of General Counsel at the Central Intelligence Agency, providing legal advice to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, now known as the National Counterterrorism Center. Recasting his New York City hacker philosophy—“a culture that was based on finding and sharing knowledge, and often times obscure knowledge others would not want you to share or understand”—Alex said of his journey, “As I got older (and possibly wiser), I began to realize that the world is not as black and white as I once thought.” Law school evolved his mindset, instilling in him an understanding of his role: “It is in those gradations of gray that we as lawyers have to work and ply our trade.”
After a period of clerking and working as an associate for Steptoe & Johnson, Alex spent a year studying legal policy and philosophy at the New College, University of Oxford. Returning to the U.S. with his Bachelor of Civil Law degree, he applied his newly fortified skills in thinking, briefing, and arguing beyond the “black-letter law itself,” back again with Steptoe & Johnson. Among other formative cases, he represented (before the U.S. Supreme Court) U.S. service members and civilians tortured by Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi intelligence services during the first Gulf War, opposing both the Republic of Iraq and the United States who wanted to extinguish compensation claims. Alex went on to become information security counsel and then Chief Compliance Officer of a global luxury group, working both in New York and London.
In his current roles, Alex continues to bridge the gap between law and technology. “We are very lucky to work with extraordinary minds from the tech community who share the same principles and ideals,” said Alex. “This is what, in part, makes us attractive as a security company and a law firm.” As an infosec lawyer, he pays tribute to the hacker roots of the information security community, and continues to hold sacred those ideals that took root since his clandestine days of information exchange with international characters via pay phone.
Spotlight Article for Loquitur (Fall 2016)
Marc Holzapfel JD'95
Marc Holzapfel’s interest in space can in part be traced to his appreciation of Star Trek. But it is environmental law that was his primary interest, and in the vast terrain of space, Marc has the opportunity to utilize law in a relatively unchartered environment. Hired in 2007 as the first U.S. employee to manage the legal affairs for Virgin Galactic, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that focuses on commercial space transportation, Marc is the company’s senior vice president and general counsel. He contends with the challenges of delivering proper legal advice while “still being mindful of the need for speed and nimbleness,” he described, especially in a business breaking into intergalactic frontiers.
Virgin Galactic—“the world’s first spaceline”—is one of an increasing number of commercial space flight companies seeking to start the next generation of space travel. Since NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011, manned space flight from the United States has been in a state of suspension. Forward-thinking and futuristic companies have stepped in. Virgin Galactic’s goal—once commercial spaceflight becomes more established—is to lower the ticket price from the current $250,000 to something the general public can afford.
“I found that VLS prepared me exceedingly well,” Marc described, surveying a career that now finds him in charge of a legal staff of five people, leading all legal and corporate transactions and regulatory compliance matters involved in bringing the business to commercial launch. “Although it was over 20 years ago,” said Marc, recalling Professor David Firestone, “I vividly remember the first day of contracts, and am surprised at how much of his teachings I use in my day to day life. I found tax with him invaluable, and don’t think I ever would have grasped basis or debt/equity without him.” He fondly recalled Professor Stephen Dycus and the poem he would read before class started—“a gentle reminder that life existed beyond the mundane, daily tasks.”
Marc learned the nuts and bolts of lawyering working for two large law firms in New York City. He became in-house counsel for The Linde Group, an industrial gas company, “primarily because I felt that working for a company let you become more involved in the business side of things.” Enjoying the greater range of issues and the stability of working with one, long term client, Marc continues to appreciate “the continuity as opposed to hopping from one matter to the next.”
Commercial spaceflight will continue to present legal issues and challenges. Marc is quick to point out, though, “regardless of how novel an area of the law is, some of the basic underpinnings are still there—minimizing risk and liability. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the piece of paper people negotiated and the allocation of risk that was agreed."