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How I became a fintech lawyer

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By The Careers Team on

Clifford Chance’s Peter Chapman was tempted by litigation, but the opportunity to work at the intersection of finance and technology was too good to miss. Ahead of ‘Fintech: the future of financial institutions’ this week, he talks about his career journey to date

To say there’s a lot in play in today’s financial world would be an understatement. This is a sector full to the brim of technological disruption. Blockchain, bitcoin, AI — all are set to revolutionise banking as we know it. Mobile banking, mobile trading on commodities exchanges, peer-to-peer lending, the disaggregation of global banks — all are either with us, in one way or another, or seemingly just another app away.

Welcome to the brave new world of fintech, which, for many, describes the way in which new technology competes with time-honoured financial systems in the delivery of financial services. But wait: Peter Chapman, a senior associate with Clifford Chance and widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading fintech lawyers, says it’s not always a case of competition, of a clash between old and new.

“The popular perception is of Shoreditch-based start-ups pioneering trendy new apps and doing away with the traditional banks,” says Chapman, who studied law at Oxford between 2002 and 2005. “But that’s not quite right. The banks are embracing fintech themselves. There’s a lot of talk about ‘an Uber moment’ for the banks but I think it’s premature.”

In early 2016, with partner Jonathan Kewley, Chapman set up an umbrella group to deliver fintech advice to Clifford Chance’s clients around the world. “I’d always had an interest in this area,” he says, “and GCs were contacting us more and more, asking for advice in what is a very dynamic, fast-moving area. With Jonathan, we formed a multi-disciplinary international team to deliver the advice our clients were asking for. It’s associate-led — clients want to hear from lawyers with youth on their side, who are tech-savvy — and it’s been very well-received.”

This has been a welcome if slightly unexpected adventure for Chapman. After his LPC, he spent six months travelling in South America, before joining Clifford Chance in February 2007. Although drawn to financial and regulatory work, he almost plumped for a career as a litigator, thanks to an unusual six-month seat. “I was a judicial assistant in the Court of Appeal to Lord Lawrence Collins, who was the first solicitor to be appointed as a High Court judge from private practice,” he explains. Lord Collins would go on to serve as a Supreme Court justice, but, as a former City law firm partner, was keen on solicitors having the opportunity to work behind the scenes in the judiciary. “I was in the right place at the right time,” says Chapman. “I was really lucky to work as Lord Lawrence’s assistant. It was a brilliant experience.”

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Enjoyable though his stint with Lord Collins was, Chapman resisted the temptation to go into litigation and focused his energies on finance. “The way that new technology was having such a dramatic effect on daily life always intrigued me,” he says. “We all use so many financial services, all the time, and I liked this interaction between products, technology and law. And I experienced the first wave of fintech. It’s an exciting sector where new technology begets new technology. Take crowdfunding — a few years ago it hadn’t been invented. Now it’s hugely popular, but sophisticated, too, with different kinds of crowdfunding platforms and products on the market.”

But back to banks and traditional financial institutions. Far from being past their peak and vulnerable to challenge from blockchain-enabled decentralised payment systems, Chapman says they have what he calls “the three Cs” going for them:

“Compliance, Capital, and Customer Base — these are the Three Cs. This area will always require significant compliance focus. People’s money and assets need to be protected; this requirement isn’t going anywhere. The banks have the capital to invest in fintech and develop their own new systems. And they have a ready-made customer base, with built-in loyalty and vast amounts of data. Who would you trust to look after your life savings — an established financial institution, or the new kid on the block?”

The banks, then, are embracing fintech, making a virtue of change and disruption. Chapman believes they will weather the Bitcoin storm, too — “cryptocurrencies are changing things, but not to the extent that banks will disappear any time soon”. But what about the big tech companies, the likes of Google, Apple and Amazon: might they opt for a stake in the financial space?

“It’s possible,” says Chapman. “They’ve got fantastic data and a massive customer base, and they could feasibly become big players in investment and finance. The regulatory burden of becoming full-blown financial institutions would be tough, though.”

There is the rub — this is a complex world with oodles of legal and regulatory dos and don’ts. That’s good news for lawyers, as is, for Chapman, the Internet of Things and AI. “People worry about the impact of these technologies, which are already part and parcel of many clients’ operations, but there’s a lot to consider, legally, when, say, it’s proposed to engage in trading using a new algorithm. A lot can go wrong; lawyers have to be on top of these issues and advise accordingly.”

And for Chapman, whose wife Gemma is also a lawyer, being tech-savvy is vital for today’s young lawyers. “Technology has a major impact on what our clients do, and our business as a law firm,” he says. “You simply have to engage with it.”

Peter Chapman will be speaking at ‘Fintech: the future of financial institutions’ on Thursday evening at Clifford Chance.

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