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Life as a lawyer in the fast-moving automotive sector

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Shoosmiths associate Sam Henegan talks electric vehicles and driverless cars, ahead of his virtual appearance at next week’s event

Shoosmiths associate Sam Henegan

Shoosmiths associate and future mobility lead Sam Henegan doesn’t think the brakes will be slammed on the rapidly evolving automotive sector any time soon. “The mobility sector (including all forms of transport) is the largest single sector in the world and its business models, infrastructure and technology are all undergoing massive changes”, he tells me when we speak.

After graduating with a law degree from the University of Sheffield, the long-time Top Gear-lover Henegan did two secondments in the automotive industry during his training contract at Shoosmiths. He got to experience an under the bonnet view of the legal workings at Volkswagen Group UK during his first secondment before jetting off to Japan to help Nissan develop new connected car technology and their electric vehicle (EV) offering, amongst other things. Having gained a variety of commercial experience, as well as work on data privacy and technology matters, Henegan now advises on the latest technologies and innovative projects in the sector.

On EVs he notes, “the name of the game is to grab the largest market share upfront. Traditional automotive brands — with strong roots in petrol and diesel — have been quite slow to take up the trend, in part due to short-term shareholder demands outweighing the arguments for significant investment in longer-term market trends. Some brands are now in a position of having to catch-up very quickly”. But what was once considered an over-hyped fad [EVs], now finds itself at the forefront of government policy, with the sale of new diesel and petrol cars due to be banned in the UK from 2030.

For autonomous vehicles, however, “the leaders are not even in the automotive sector but are companies like Waymo, Amazon, and Intel. This means that a lot of the more traditional players are working in partnership with newcomers to develop technology in this area”. Meanwhile, hydrogen looks set to be the fuel of the future for heavy goods vehicles and will likely have the biggest impact in the marine and aviation sectors. Henegan highlights the market differences between Europe where “the use cases for hydrogen vary” and countries in Asia that “have been investing in hydrogen in the automotive sector for years”.

A common thread between these products is a need for fully developed infrastructure. Henegan explains, “it’s a process of development where the infrastructure is always playing catch-up”. In the case of EVs, that is the need for a reliable charging infrastructure that makes these vehicles accessible to a wider range of the population. Changes in regulation are in the works, he explains, that will see chargers made available by employers at workplaces, whilst other players such as the likes of oil and gas giant BP are also investing in filling the infrastructure gap, in recognition of the need to adapt their own business model to survive.

Also central to the future of the mobility sector is government regulation. “The question is which countries can develop the best regulatory framework, which encourages innovation and avoids any serious harms.” The UK wants to position itself as a “world leader” in EV, hydrogen, and autonomous vehicles. For autonomous vehicles, he details, the country already has “a notable head start” thanks to its tradition of being used by industry players as a pilot market and therefore being a target for foreign investment.

The application deadline for Shoosmiths's Summer Vacation Placement is 28 February 2022

As Henegan’s experience with the likes of Volkswagen and Nissan shows, Shoosmiths’s lawyers have a unique insight into the workings of the automotive sector. This broad sector perspective, as well as legal expertise, is what Henegan argues makes Shoosmiths “the top automotive law firm in the UK”. He continues:

“What the sector is doing informs regulations. We [Shoosmiths] have a unique perspective due to our client base and are used as a sounding board by clients on cutting-edge developments.”

Henegan goes on to give the example of the close relationship the firm has with clients in this area: “Some of the best conversations I have are with engineering teams, learning about new technical innovations and helping them to bring their products to market.”

The fast-changing nature of the industry also means that Shoosmiths’s partners are keen to learn from juniors about the latest technologies. “As a junior, the firm really encourages you to share your opinion and interests in these areas.” For those interested in a career as a lawyer in the automotive sector, Henegan says the best thing you can be is genuinely enthusiastic and curious:

“You should always want to look under the bonnet of what a client is doing right now, and what’s around the next corner.”

Sam Henegan will be speaking alongside other Shoosmiths lawyers during ‘Electric vehicles, driverless cars and the law — with Shoosmiths’, a virtual student event taking place on Tuesday 16 November. You can apply to attend the event, which is free, now.

The application deadline for Shoosmiths's Summer Vacation Placement is 28 February 2022

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