M&A lawyer and UK head of Linklaters’ technology sector Derek Tong discusses his experience helping tech companies realise their ground-breaking visions for the future
Having studied both law and software engineering at university in Australia, Derek Tong has long been fascinated by technology and its potential to transform the world around us. The University of Melbourne graduate joined Linklaters in 2007 as a trainee, qualifying into the corporate team, and made partner in 2019 at a point where the Magic Circle firm was making the technology sector one of its strategic priorities.
“In the lead up to partnership, I wanted to focus my practice on an area that I was interested in both personally and professionally, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do that through the technology sector,” he explains. With Derek at the helm as Linklaters’ UK head of technology, the past few years have seen tremendous growth in tech M&A and tech investments in the UK. With recent geopolitical tensions, macroeconomic turbulence and regulatory change, however, Derek believes we may be at a turning point, with global tech investments so far in 2022 being down 25% on the same period from last year.
This, according to the M&A lawyer, has changed the way some UK companies have approached their funding cycles, in some cases deferring more typical equity funding rounds and looking at alternative funding options, such as convertible instruments and venture debt. Having said that, investment remains strong in certain sub-sectors, for example, ESG (environmental, social and governance) and climate tech investment, where companies are under pressure to find innovative ways to meet their net zero commitments.
There’s also plenty of regulatory work for tech-focused lawyers, with increased legislation and scrutiny on the role big tech plays in society. This encompasses everything from data protection fines and antitrust regulation to increased controls over foreign investment and legislation on online harms.
While this has, inevitably, involved “lots of stressful meetings”, Derek says it’s hard to beat the feeling of being a part of a start-up success story. “It’s really fun working with a start-up founder who you really believe in or helping funds who are all looking for the next big thing to see their hopes become reality,” he explains.
In order to do this well, Derek underlines that lawyers need to be practical and able to come up with creative commercial solutions. In the tech sector, specifically, “you need an interest in what’s going on in tech so you can find out what the legal implications behind the latest buzzwords like NFTs and the metaverse might be and how new business models are evolving.”
Derek emphasises the importance of getting to know clients in the tech sector in order to be at the forefront of the latest developments. This commerciality is something that comes hand-in-hand with being a lawyer at Linklaters. “With the firm’s great client base and excellent training programme, trainee and junior lawyers can be at the heart of the tech sector, whilst working alongside our legal experts at the firm,” he says.
“We really want trainees to take on responsibility and allow them to get involved in whatever they are interested in,” he adds, touting trainees’ ability to forge a legal career that aligns with their interests. As for rising up the ranks — Derek notes that “it’s a marathon not a sprint. Make sure you are doing what you really want to be doing and are setting yourself goals as you progress throughout your career”.
So, what qualities does Linklaters look for in aspiring City lawyers? “I always want to know why you want to be here and what is your motivation,” says Derek. He adds that “you need a willingness to learn”, but don’t underestimate the importance of building a rapport in an interview: “I often ask myself ‘would this person be someone I’d want on my team?’” With many high-pressure situations arising through work with some of the largest tech companies, being a team player and having good client management skills are clearly highly valued attributes.
Derek Tong will be speaking at ‘Global trends in technology — with Linklaters’, a virtual student event taking place on Thursday, 29 September. Apply now.
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