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Arriving now: The transportation revolution is here, and lawyers should be ready to ride

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By Nishant Prasad on

Burges Salmon lawyers discuss the impact of electric and autonomous vehicles on the legal profession and the opportunities ahead

Left to right: Burges Salmon’s Ed Barratt, Lucy Pegler and Olivia Ward

At the start of November, over 50 students assembled at Burges Salmon’s Bristol office to listen to insights on the future of transportation. Electric vehicles, self-driving cars and ridesharing were among the topics discussed at the Legal Cheek event, alongside the rise of lawtech and tactics for training contract applications. On the panel answering questions were Ed Barratt, a director in Burges Salmon’s projects team; Lucy Pegler, a senior associate specialising in technology, data protection and cyber security; and Olivia Ward, a solicitor in the commercial technology team. Here are the key takeaways:

Think holistically about change

One aspect of commercial awareness is understanding how change offers both opportunities and poses risks to clients. While the impact of electric cars will be most profoundly felt by vehicle manufacturers such as Ford and VW, lawyers should also consider how other industries are likely to be affected. For example, Ed highlighted how the increased demand for power would disrupt energy infrastructure. As he described it:

“It goes beyond just generating more power. The difficulty is getting electricity from the high voltage network to the low voltage network where people use it. Who pays for this new infrastructure?”

Such issues generate ample work for lawyers in a range of disciplines, from project finance to land law to strategic policy advice. At full service firms like Burges Salmon, there are lots of opportunities to help facilitate this change.

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New business models mean new contractual problems

The shift to self-driving cars also brings about a whole series of challenging commercial, legal and regulatory questions. Navigating this maze requires building a web of new contracts to help allocate risk and apportion reward. According to Lucy, this will require collaborating between stakeholders such as the “people who developed the software, people who integrated the software, people who manufacture the vehicle and people who did the safety validation.”

Furthermore, there is a series of interesting ethical questions around safety. Do you need to revalidate the whole system if there is an update? How do you ensure unauthorised changes to the vehicle are detected and the vehicle is immobilised?

Finally, autonomous vehicles open the door to new innovative business models such as transport clubs. While this move away from vehicle ownership to renting a service mirrors changes already seen in the media industry, the transportation industry has a series of specific issues. According to Lucy, insurance companies will move from insuring a driver to insuring a vehicle. She envisioned a future where the insurance premiums for human drivers are so much more expensive that “driving may become the preserve of the very rich.”

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Clients want simplicity

Ed highlighted the issues that arose when a client was seeking to lease a fleet of electric vehicles and wanted to provide an ‘all-in-one’ service to the end user. There were likely to be opportunities for lawyers to advise on a “web of contracts” for infrastructure upgrades, electricity supply, maintenance and vehicle cleaning.

Working closely with clients to help simplify these challenges is a key part of being a successful commercial solicitor. In seeking to understand these changes, lawyers need to work in partnership with other industries. Indeed, Burges Salmon has already worked with AXA to jointly produce insurance reports about self-driving vehicles.

Technology changes more rapidly than you think

Big data and drones are just two recent examples of how regulation has been playing catch-up with rapidly developing technology. In a few short years drones have gone from being a curiosity to an invaluable tool deployed everywhere from agriculture to construction.

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Having survived the frenetic period of activity around the introduction of GDPR earlier this year, both Lucy and Olivia shared fascinating insights into some of the data-related challenges associated with autonomous vehicles. A recent report from Intel estimated that self-driving cars would generate 4000 GB of data every day. Managing storage and access to this data is a key challenge that lawyers will be working on.

Paralegal and trainee tasks are the ones being most disrupted by lawtech

Legal technology continues to generate substantial interest amongst students and it’s at the junior levels where this impact is greatest. Olivia spoke about how due diligence software is changing her workload:

“[Due diligence] would normally be the reserve of trainees or paralegals to do that volume work. Technology now does it at such a quick pace that it gives room to do analysis and more interesting work.”

Increasingly, we are seeing junior lawyers asked to think strategically and spend more time working directly with clients. For Lucy, this is a highlight of the job since “clients add real dimension to work, they make it interesting!” Clients themselves have become aware of the speed lawtech offers, and as Olivia observed: “everything becomes so much faster that clients expect a quick turnaround.”

Finally, know the basics

Before lawyers start signing up en mass to coding classes, they should remember that the basics are important as ever. In addition to the usual advice about being well-rounded individuals that have interests outside of the law, Lucy reminded attendees that firms are there to help “teach you the technical legal knowledge” you need. She also described the ways she assesses prospective trainees:

“I think: can I leave them in a room with my best client unsupervised and still have them as a client? If you are listening, diligent and you are taking on feedback — these are really positive things!”

As ever, start by showing why you are interested in the legal work undertaken, and why you have the skills to do it.

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