In a nutshell
Technology, telecoms and outsourcing lawyers distinguish themselves from general commercial advisers because of their specific industry know-how. They combine a keen understanding of the latest advances in various technologies with a thorough knowledge of the ever-changing law that regulates, protects and licenses them. As forms of media and new technologies converge, clients have come to rely on technology lawyers’ innovation and imagination in offering rigorous legal solutions to maximise and protect income and ideas.
The majority of the top 50 firms possess dedicated groups of lawyers. There are also specialists within smaller commercial firms and a number of niche firms. At some firms work related to technology and outsourcing might be grouped with areas like IP and contracts under a general 'commercial' umbrella.
What lawyers do
- Advise on commercial transactions and draft the requisite documents. There is a heavy emphasis on risk management.
- Assist in the resolution of disputes, commonly by arbitration or other settlement procedures as this is a court-averse sector. Many disputes relate to faulty or unsatisfactory software or hardware.
- Help clients police their IT and web-based reputation and assets. Cybersquatting, ownership of database information and the Data Protection Act are common topics.
- Give clients mainstream commercial, corporate and financial advice.
- Specialised outsourcing lawyers represent customers and suppliers in the negotiation and drafting of agreements for the provision of IT or other services by a third party.
Realities of the job
- You need to be familiar with the latest regulations and their potential impact on your client’s business. Does a website need a disclaimer? What measures should your client take to protect data about individuals gathered online?
- You need a good grasp of the jargon of your chosen industry, firstly to write contracts but also so you can understand your clients’ instructions. Read trade journals like Media Lawyer and Computer Weekly or magazines such as Wired or New Scientist.
- In this frontier world, gut instinct matters. One in-house lawyer made what looked like a risky move from BT to little-known internet auction site, eBay. Six years later he moved to head up Skype’s legal team.
- The ability to think laterally and creatively is a must, especially when the application of a client’s technology or content throws up entirely new issues.
- High-end private sector outsourcing involves complex, high-value and increasingly multi-jurisdictional work. Mostly, it is the larger law firms that handle such deals. In the public sector, deals involve UK government departments, local authorities and the suppliers of services to those entities.
- Growing at a rate 50% faster than the economy as a whole, the UK digital technology sector is booming, but there are concerns about a North-South divide as London attracts a large amount of talent, leaving companies in Manchester and Leeds in need of employees. The prospect of Brexit deepens this concern as opting out of EU free movement will further limit the accessible talent pool. Brexit could also have a major effect on data laws and investment, though how this will pan out will depend heavily on the UK's future relationship with the EU.
- The European Commission is currently pushing what it refers to as the Digital Single Market, a wide-ranging raft of measures designed to unify regulations and business practices in tech-related industries and services. One recent concrete achievement is the abolition of mobile roaming charges in 2017. Further proposals include rules to promote investment in mobile networks, one of the aims being to have 5G across the whole of Europe by 2025.
- In response to concerns over privacy, the EU created the General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force on 25 May 2018. It places much more onerous restrictions on organisations that process data, requiring that records be kept of all personal data, that organisations gain and be able to prove active consent before collecting data, as well as being able to show what it's used for, who it goes to, and the protections in place to ensure it does not fall into unintended hands. Non-compliance can mean a maximum fine of €20 million or 4% of a company's global turnover if it’s higher. The first month of GDPR saw a sharp rise in the number of complaints to regulators across Europe, signifying public interest in the new regulations.
- Technological progress keeps the legal and regulatory world playing catch-up. For example, the virtual currency Bitcoin is difficult to track as it can be traded anonymously (as the hacking in summer 2018 of Coinrail and subsequent loss of £28 million in virtual currency demonstrates). In addition, 3D printing has intellectual property implications, and copyrighted material can be easily downloaded onto mobile devices. The prospect of driverless cars raises serious questions about product liability and the appropriate regulation. In 2018 the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act became law, setting up a system ensuring there are no gaps in insurance coverage for autonomous vehicles, but there is still a lot of ground to cover.
- As tech companies battle for the mobile and tablet markets, there has been an upsurge in patent disputes. Apple, having been engaged in long-running 'smartphone wars' with Samsung, recently turned its attention to Qualcomm, the biggest mobile chip maker. In January 2018 Qualcomm was fined €997 million by EU competition regulators for paying Apple to only use its chips in the iPhone.
- Chat apps like WhatsApp have overtaken SMS as the most common way messages are sent via mobiles, while Skype, FaceTime and similar software encroach on phone calls. Concerns over privacy have also penetrated this area and WhatsApp implemented end-to-end encryption in 2016 after the FBI fought Apple to gain access to a suspect's phone.
- With the proliferation of cloud computing in business, data protection has become an area of huge expansion for many law firms. For example, if a New York-based official in a multinational company accesses HR data for staff based in Frankfurt, they may well be in breach of the Data Protection regulations because EU regulations are much stricter than those in the US.
- Cybersecurity is also a concern for both law firms and their clients. Having large troves of confidential customer/client information stolen despite promising to keep it safe is highly damaging. The recent data breach that involved unauthorised access to 5.9 million Dixons Carphone customers’ bank cards brought further attention to the issue.
- Information harvested by data consultant Cambridge Analytica from Facebook was allegedly used to influence both the US presidential election and the EU referendum. The scandal has since led to the closure of Cambridge Analytica, but the investigation into both firms continues despite both denying any wrongdoing.
- The roll-out of super-fast broadband across the UK continues. The government department responsible – renamed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in 2017 – is introducing a broadband Universal Service Obligation so that in 2020 everyone in the UK will have the right to request high-speed broadband.