Ahead of the curve: How law firms are preparing their clients for the next big thing
Osborne Clarke’s Catherine Hammon explains how she got into digital transformation and why being a knowledge lawyer means always staying one step ahead
Catherine Hammon, digital transformation knowledge lawyer at Osborne Clarke, has her eyes fixed firmly on the future. “Exploring the possibilities of the future is endlessly fascinating,” she explains, “shifts in the tech sector are transforming how we do our business.”
Though we may not realise it, digitalisation has become embedded in our daily lives. From seismic changes to ones we barely notice, Hammon highlights examples of digitalisation in the post-pandemic world. “Here we are having a chat on Zoom, whereas previously, you’d have come into the office, and we’d have had a coffee and we’d have been talking that way.”
Take artificial intelligence (AI) as an example, it can be everything from tiny incremental changes to massive game-changing shifts. Digitalisation works because it makes our lives easier, she says, “there was a really good example from the weekend, where we had the queue for the Queen’s lying in state. Software was used to monitor the queue and update a map with information on how long the wait was”. She likens this sort of innovation to a swan swimming: “On the surface, it’s a simple page of information but underneath there’s a lot of work that goes on to make that happen.”
On the seismic side of things, we have projects like AlphaFold from Google DeepMind. The project is based on an AI algorithm that can look at a sequence of amino acids and predict what the protein molecule will look like. Protein shape is a key indicator of function, and this has previously been uncovered only with microscopes. It’s game-changing technology, she says, “In less than two years, AlphaFold was able to predict the structure of around 99% of the 200 million proteins known in nature, whereas previously we only knew a tiny fraction of them.”
So, what’s the next big thing in tech? “Clients are beginning to understand the power of data and think seriously about how to protect its value,” she says. “Pure information isn’t considered to be a form of property, so you can’t own it as such. But there’s no doubt that data is an important business asset. So we have a mismatch between what businesses consider to be a valuable asset and how far the law can protect that asset.”
The other thing on the horizon is the metaverse. It’s early days and this virtual space is still taking shape, she explains. ‘’The one thing we know for sure about the metaverse is it won’t be what we think it will be now. At the moment, clients know they want their brand to be in the metaverse and they can use things like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as a way to have individual digital uniqueness, whereas digital things are normally infinitely copyable.”
Looking further down the line we have quantum computing, she says, this will be a massive shift but it’s still some way off. Most of us would consider the idea of quantum computing alarmingly complex, but Hammon offers a surprisingly easy explanation: “Imagine a sudoku puzzle. A human might plod around the boxes, working them out one by one. You work out one and that gives you the answer to another and so on. Now, if you were doing that with a computer, it just throws lots of processing power at it and the plodding-around process happens more quickly. The difference with a quantum computer is that it can conceptualise every combination of numbers in every square in every grid simultaneously. A quantum computer is exponentially faster because it can hold all the possibilities at the same time.”
It’s this speed that is going to change things, she says, especially where the legal sector is concerned: “Quantum computers will be able to smash encryption because of their ability to do incredibly fast calculations. Currently, we encrypt our data and digital storage using very complex prime factorisation calculations. These are crackable, but only with the kinds of sums that would currently take 10,000 years. It’s not generating a lot of work for a lot of lawyers yet, but at some point, the quantum threat will arrive so encryption techniques that can survive quantum computers are a real focus for the tech and cybersecurity sector at the moment, and that’s starting to flow through into our interpretation of legal obligations to keep up to date with privacy and cybersecurity advances.”
Becoming a knowledge lawyer is often the culmination of many years of experience and Hammon’s career is a great example of this. “I was a competition specialist for the best part of sort of 20 years,” she explains. “I started as an associate solicitor, before leaving fee earning and going to the Competition Appeal Tribunal, which is the specialist tribunal for competition law in the UK. Then I moved into being a professional support lawyer, but still focusing on competition law.”
In a bid to find a new focus for the second part of her career, Hammon came across her current role as digital transformation knowledge lawyer, offering a new focus for her professional support lawyer skills. She immediately knew the challenge was right. “How can a role about the future not be a great thing to focus on for the future?” she says. “My role is understanding future transformative technologies and ensuring that our lawyers are resourced in what they need to know to advise their clients.”
What advice would she give to those interested in becoming knowledge lawyers? “The best thing is to keep an open mind,” says Hammon. She emphasises that “getting to try out different areas during your training contract is key in really understanding what you’re best suited to” and highlights her firm’s focus on tech. “Osborne Clarke is such a fantastic place to do this because our experience and clients in the tech sector are quite hard to beat. I think we were the first firm in London to do a deal about the internet in the nineties! We published our report on the metaverse a couple of weeks before Facebook changed its name to Meta. It is genuinely a future-focused firm and a fantastic place to work.”
Catherine Hammon will be speaking at ‘Digital transformation in business — with Osborne Clarke’, a virtual student event taking place tomorrow, Tuesday 27 September. Apply now.
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