How to become an IP & technology lawyer

Ahead of ‘Global Commercial Law in 2017: What’s next for the world’s legal capital?’ on Wednesday, Travers Smith’s Dan Reavill views the opportunities today as even brighter than the dotcom boom years

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Looking back to the late 1990s, you could see that technology was clearly an exciting sector to be a part of. The internet was starting to produce some very interesting tech companies — albeit ones that lacked discernible business models at that stage — and there was often a sense that big new things lay ahead.

I was a trainee in Leeds at the time, with no real idea of which area of law I wanted to practise in beyond having enjoyed an intellectual property (IP) module during my degree. Having qualified, I was fortunate enough to find myself acting for some of these new tech companies. Quite often the value of a start-up resides in its IP, and it was in that interaction between law and technology that I began to gain invaluable experience.

Having moved south to join Travers Smith in 2001, I continued to gain more experience as the industry went through the bursting of the dotcom bubble. Sixteen years on, London is an international tech capital, attracting pioneering fintech start-ups alongside huge investment from global tech giants like Google and Amazon.

The challenge now with Brexit is to protect this environment and ensure that the UK remains a place where highly skilled people — from programmers and engineers to banking and finance professionals — want to live. Although there is a lot of uncertainty around at present, I think there still has to be a degree of confidence in UK plc. One encouraging sign is the development of some impressive British tech companies, such as Micro Focus, which has grown massively in the last few years. In the autumn Travers Smith acted for the company, a longstanding client, in its £6.6 billion takeover of Hewlett Packard’s software business.

The other area of opportunity for the UK is through new trading deals with countries outside the EU. The precise nature of these deals is difficult to anticipate and will require nimbleness and flexibility from businesses and law firms. Travers’ model of ‘best friend’ relationships with other independent law firms globally, rather than a network of international offices, could suit this environment, although I am sure that well-run law firms with different, cohesive models will also thrive.

To students preparing to enter the professional world at this time, my message would be to keep an open mind. What practice area you ultimately specialise in will be guided to a large extent by opportunities. We often second junior associates to our ‘best friend’ firms all over the world and also to our international clients — and the relationships they build through those experiences can prove to be formative on their careers.

At the same time, there are wider economic themes that are worth paying attention to as a trainee or young lawyer. For example, in fintech we are seeing technology bringing about disruption in a clearly identifiable market with big opportunities for the people who get it right. Legal expertise will be central in all of this. The bottom line is that regulation is constantly trying to catch up with technology, meaning that there will always be a demand for people who can explain how the law applies to new developments. Once you have that expertise it becomes possible to branch out into different areas — in my case, going beyond advising technology companies to represent clients in media, sport and retail.

It’s worth bearing in mind, too, the technological developments being applied to the legal profession. For firms providing bespoke legal advice on complex transactional matters and disputes, this tech is making the role of junior lawyer more attractive as some of the tedious elements of the job are stripped away. I wouldn’t be afraid of this. The notion of the computerised lawyer is an interesting one, but it is not a new suggestion, having been peddled throughout my career, and still probably remains some way off.

It’s strange to think that when I started my career nearly 20 years ago smartphones and social media didn’t exist, while data protection laws were still in nascent form. Who knows where we will be in another two decades time.

Dan Reavill is a partner in Travers Smith’s Commercial, IP & Technology team. He will be speaking at ‘Global Commercial Law in 2017: What’s next for the world’s legal capital?’ on Wednesday.