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From niche to mainstream: Norton Rose Fulbright’s Victoria Birch on the explosion of interest in Bitcoin, blockchain and smart contracts

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As firm’s junior lawyers reflect on what tech advances mean for them

One of the UK’s leading fintech lawyers has given a memorable insight into how topics such as cryptocurrencies and blockchain went from having a ‘Wild West’ image to mainstream appeal.

Speaking at Legal Cheek Live: Bitcoin, blockchain & smart contracts and the next generation of lawyers last month, Norton Rose Fulbright partner Victoria Birch looked back to 2013 when her interest in this area began as a senior associate in her firm’s Technology and Innovation team. She told the audience:

“There was a group of us at Norton Rose Fulbright who were looking at Bitcoin and at cryptocurrencies and thought, ‘This looks quite interesting: how does it work from a legal perspective?’ We started to do research, and we started to look at the legal framework. And actually one of the guys who was in that team loved it so much he went off and set up his own blockchain company.”

When first starting to do presentations on cryptocurrencies, and producing thought leadership and white papers, Birch remembers people probably thinking that she and her colleagues were being a little bit maverick:

“We were probably a little bit ahead of the market. We used to go to presentations where the focus was something very topical and what people had initially come to hear about, and then they’d say ‘Right now for the last ten minutes we are going to hand over to Victoria who is going to talk about the Wild West and crypto currencies’. Then lo and behold, six months later the market, particularly the financial services sector, looked at the technology and thought, ‘this is actually fascinating. It can be used for lots of things. We are very interested in this.’ From then on the interest and enquiries just grew and grew.”

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Meanwhile, Birch and her team had discovered like-minded pockets of enthusiasts in other locations within her firm, including Australia, Asia, Germany and New York. “Suddenly we realised that we had a global practice group focussing on this area,” she remembered.

This head start has given Norton Rose Fulbright an advantage as its large institutional clients become increasingly interested in blockchain and other fast-growing areas such as regtech and insurtech. “We were very lucky because lots of those people who’d been to the ‘Here’s Victoria talking about the Wild West’ talks remembered that,” adds Birch.

These days, she and her colleagues are in ever increasing demand, bridging the gap between the creative tech scene and traditional business and finance. For trainees coming into the firm, like Juliet Gordon who spoke alongside Birch at Legal Cheek Live, these are exciting times, with opportunities to apply legal principles learned at law school to this new world while getting a foothold in an emerging sector that is set to grow substantially over the years ahead.

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Norton Rose Fulbright’s speed off the blocks has also helped its positioning as the tech revolution reaches law firms themselves. As a host of lawtech products hit the market, promising major boosts to efficiency and new possibilities to extract useful information from data, clients are demanding that their advisors engage. Fluent in the basics of artificial intelligence functionality, Birch has encouraged junior colleagues, such as associate Peter Critchley, who spoke on the panel alongside her and Gordon, to maximise the potential of such advances. At Legal Cheek Live he shared his experience of lawtech with attendees, explaining:

“Ultimately [lawtech] is going to free you up to do far more interesting work and more challenging work, and you will be able to grow as lawyers much more quickly.”

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Certainly, things have come a long way in the last four years. “Pretty much every department in the firm is involved now, and has embraced its importance,” concludes Birch.

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