My life as a tech lawyer
Womble Bond Dickinson partner Alastair Mitton offers insights into the fast-moving sector
“There are fascinating issues around technology,” says Alastair Mitton, technology partner at Womble Bond Dickinson.
“Anything tech-related is running way faster than the law can be made, faster than regulators can regulate. So, how do we advise clients if they are creating particularly advanced tech solutions, or using data in a way that the rules are not designed for? Where are the risks? Always remembering that the job of being a lawyer is not saying no to things all the time, it’s finding ways for the client to do what they want within the parameters of the law.”
Some of the issues are philosophical in nature — who is ultimately responsible when a robot causes harm? Where a driverless car is faced with a choice, on what basis is its decision made? How do you safeguard against the embedding of human prejudices in artificial intelligence systems? What kind of society do we want to have? What controls should be placed on global companies in this space? Mitton is quick to emphasise that “these are fundamental questions, but perhaps very different to the day-to-day work we do as tech lawyers. Although, if you are interested in these big picture issues then you will probably be interested in the work technology lawyers do.”
Mitton’s career has focused on technology since he qualified in 2006 — advising a range of banks, fintech start-ups, online investor sites, retailers, insurers and transport companies on a myriad of tech matters. He is well-known in his field as a ‘go-to’ expert for anything tech-related, whether that be data protection, intellectual property, licensing, the roll-out of large IT projects or the use of cloud-based solutions.
In fact, his interest in tech predates law school. After studying French and Spanish at Bristol University, he took himself off to Paris to work for the Eurosport television sports network. This was in 2000-02, a time when the huge possibilities of the internet as a platform for sports and entertainment were only beginning to be recognised. Mitton was interested in the potential of technology and, at Eurosport, became involved in the licensing arrangements and the negotiations around sponsorship deals, which led him to think about becoming a lawyer. He did a traineeship at Travers Smith where one of his seats was in a technology-focused commercial team, working at the firm for five and a half years in total before joining Bond Pearce (now Womble Bond Dickinson) in 2010.
The tech sector has since expanded — massively — and continues to grow. “Tech and data are increasingly pervasive in everything we do as individuals and at work, whether you work in insurance, fintech or manufacturing,” he says. “It is rare to come across something that doesn’t have a tech angle. So, it is always useful to have an understanding of this, to be tech-literate. Most people coming out of university now are quite techie, they know all about smartphones, the anticipation of 5G connectivity and so on, so understanding the application of tech is not a shock to the system for anyone, just an extension of what they are already used to seeing.”
From his perspective as a lawyer in a fast-moving sector, therefore, which skills does he predict there will be more demand for in the future? “There is a bit of crystal ball gazing here but I think the greater diversity of roles within large law firms will continue to expand. This is already happening. There will be greater use of data analytics and project management skills, and I think the boundaries will cross over between the two disciplines of tech and law.” He continues:
“It is good to be familiar with the power of analytics, at a basic level — it’s not just about what the law says but what the data is telling you, and how you deliver that information to the client. The application of this is available now, so we’re not in rocket space territory. It’s about being more creative with how you use the information available to you and taking informed decisions based on it.”
Mitton’s advice to students is “to remain open-minded and genuinely curious about the way things are done. The chances are your ideas around shaping how we work and deliver for our clients will be useful. As a firm, we are open to this, and for example run an annual innovation week where we invite ideas from around the firm, on how we can be more innovative and do things better. Frequently some of the best ideas have come from the people who have worked as lawyers for the least time.”
Finally, what’s Bristol like as a place to work? “There are amazing statistics about the number of Bristol University graduates who end up staying or returning here. It’s a fantastic city, a great place to work, you do high quality work, and there is easy access to London and elsewhere around the country. There is a legal hub here, with top quality law firms and a thriving business community. It’s a very diverse city, and in a great spot, and it’s not enormous, it retains both the attractions of a city and the charm of living in the south west.”
Alastair Mitton will be speaking alongside other Womble Bond Dickinson lawyers during Thursday’s ‘The law firm of the 2020s’ event. You can apply to attend the event, which is free, now.