These are the skills that law students need to start developing for the new digital age
We live in a world where big tech companies are like celebrities. Under the scrutiny of the public eye, anything that Uber or Google do is either leaked on Twitter or hits front page news. And like celebrities, these giants have their own demands. They expect different things from legal services, and they require lawyers with tailored skill sets to make them shine and shield them from scandal.
RPC should know — the ultra-trendy law firm acts for clients including Uber, Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Youtube and Whatsapp. No biggie.
At our recent Legal Cheek Live session, a partner and a junior lawyer from RPC’s Commercial, Technology & Outsourcing team joined one of Uber’s legal directors to talk about the skills that future lawyers need to advise some of the biggest brands across the tech spectrum. Together, they brought us three perspectives on how best to prepare for the digital revolution.
Data is a lawyer’s best friend
One way to get ahead is to “start studying data”, stresses RPC partner Oliver Bray. Leading RPC’s commercial team, he says “digital is based on data — you cannot be a commercial lawyer now without understanding data protection law”.
Get ready for May 2018 — the scheduled unveiling of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), for which companies like Google and Uber are putting on their seatbelts. Oliver says that the new regulations “will change the landscape forever from a commercial point of view”.
At 4% of global turnover, the fines that will arise from enforcing the new data rules are expected to be “huge”. As a law firm, RPC is “pitching more and more data work as we head towards GDPR”, reveals Oliver.
Indeed, “data protection used to be a niche topic”, says Oliver. Leaving its hipster beginnings behind, data work “has now become mainstream”. The “data risk is the biggest risk any company is going to have going forward”, he adds.
The best way for future lawyers to prepare for the digital upheaval is to read around the topic and “know your stuff”. “You’re not going to make it unless you’re passionate about it”, says Oliver, “the beautiful thing about this topic is that you can get passionate about it because it’s just interesting”.
Grab hold of “whatever info you can get as you build your knowledge, because if you build your knowledge you get confidence, and when you get confident you can speak strongly, and that comes across in interview or whenever you’re speaking to whoever you want to impress”, Oliver expands.
'You're not going to make it in law unless you're passionate': Olly Bray, RPC Commercial, IP & Technology Partner, shares his careers advice at the final #legalcheeklive of 2017
Posted by Legal Cheek on Tuesday, December 19, 2017
To get a base layer understanding of these topics, he suggests starting with nutshell-styled books, and building up from there to get a view of “how it all interacts”. As we count down the days to Christmas, there’s still time to put a couple on your wish list…
The Google secondee
Currently on secondment at Google, and taking full advantage of the free sushi at its London offices, newly qualified solicitor Stuart Harris encourages students to build on their client experience, as “there’s no substitute for it”.
Thrown straight in the deep end, he was seconded a month into his first seat as a trainee at RPC. In fact, having been deployed to five client secondments already, the secondment veteran knows a thing or two about what tools future rookies need in order to succeed in the digital economy.
The key thing is to “get used to risk”, Stuart says. Future lawyers need to embrace the fact that “cutting edge businesses are going to be dealing with untrodden issues that haven’t been dealt with before — there isn’t always going to be a precedent that you can pull out of a drawer and say: ‘Here you go, this is the answer'”, he continues. Negotiation skills will come into play when you “need to find a compromise between your client and a variety of regulators” as emerging technologies break through.
You’ll also need to grasp the bigger picture, which is something you can build: “Stay sharp and stay up to speed with what’s going on,” the Warwick law and business graduate says, adding:
“There’s a real need for young lawyers to be adaptable, to be flexible enough to embrace new technology, to speak clients’ language, to understand what they’re talking about when they use technical jargon, and the only way to do that is by staying in sync with the world around you”.
Stuart Harris, a junior associate at RPC, shares his experience of being on secondment at Google
Posted by Legal Cheek on Monday, December 18, 2017
There are things you can start doing now “to spot issues that you might have to think about from a business perspective”. Eventually you’ll do it subconsciously, “when you’re on your commute and when you’re sat down watching TV and think: ‘actually this is going on in the news and this could affect the problem that I’ve got on my desk’,” he continues. Practice makes perfect.
Secondees are on a wider mission: “Always be listening out for the know-how and knowledge” in client offices, Stuart says, and bring it back to your firm. Learning from digital pioneers like Uber and Google is “a big part of what law firms need to do to catch up with what their clients really want and need in order to add value to their work” as client behaviours change in the digital economy.
What the clients say
So how do lawyers support a tech company in a disruptive environment? “You’ve got to understand the mentality of a company like Uber or Google” says Kandarp Thakar, legal director of commercial transactions at Uber. “Understand its risk parameters, put in the leg work to learn how it operates as a business, and what its products are” he adds.
Budgets are extremely tight in any organisation, explains Kandarp, “so there needs to be value derived from each pound spent on legal services — for every $1 the business spends on in-house counsel, it would need to spend $5 on external counsel to receive the same sort of advice or legal service”.
To save costs, companies are starting to automate low value contracts and transactions that don’t pose too much of a risk to the business: “When we do go to external counsel, it’s in respect to a particularly tricky situation,” Kandarp says. You need “the ability to be innovative in the field you’re providing legal advice in”, Kandarp stresses.
These trends will shake up the legal profession in the next ten years, and future lawyers will have to offer a lot more to compete with alternative legal providers. Indeed, in-house legal teams are becoming more like mini law firms — “business people with legal skills” is how Kandarp describes them.
Uber's Kandarp Thakar on life as an in-house lawyer at a disruptive technology company — speaking at #LegalCheekLive with RPC
Posted by Legal Cheek on Monday, January 8, 2018
Their steady rise in the legal sector means going in-house is an alternative career you might want to consider as we edge closer to the centre of the digital storm. As they provide advice on more areas than legal, “a lot is demanded from an in-house team to take a new product or transaction forward”. He explains:
“The first thing is to understand what is required from an in-house lawyer at a disruptive technology company. One of the key requirements is telling the business what it should do, rather than what it can do. You’re not advising on legal issues in a complete vacuum, you’re part of this complicated matrix where you’re a really critical component that’s fully integrated within the business. You’re front and centre taking business decisions”.
This is especially so at a tech company, where the “legal team plays a leadership role”. Technology is changing “at a furious pace”, Kandarp continues, so “being up to date on different business developments is particularly important to keep up with this pace of change” and succeed in commercial law.
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