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The global pandemic through the eyes of a tech lawyer

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Ahead of tomorrow’s virtual event, ‘Re-imagining global law firms in the age of remote-working’, Allen & Overy’s William Samengo-Turner considers what’s next for the booming tech industry

William Samengo-Turner

William Samengo-Turner is a self-confessed tech enthusiast. The Allen & Overy partner traces his fascination with all things tech back to his childhood. A time long before the ubiquitous tech we now enjoy, he recalls how any new technology which appeared at home — from Psions, to pagers to PCs — sparked his curiosity.

Such curiosity has served Samengo-Turner well. Since joining the magic circle firm in 2007, the corporate and M&A lawyer has ridden high on the waves of the tech boom, born out of the global financial crisis well over a decade ago.

A mixture of Allen & Overy’s reputation and international reach — the firm boasts over 40 offices in 29 countries — has provided Samengo-Turner access to cross-border deals for global tech giants, including Facebook, HP, eBay and PayPal. “We get some of the best deals in the market,” he says. “Clients trust us with some of the most important things they do.”

But it was a year-long secondment in Silicon Valley during 2015 that really deepened Samengo-Turner’s understanding of the sector. Joining Fenwick & West, one of America’s leading technology firms, the-then senior associate recalls the sense of awe he felt the moment he landed in California.

“You get off the plane and you suddenly realise that you really are in the hub where all of these big companies, businesses that you interact with every day and who often have a couple of square centimetres footprint on your phone, are based,” he reflects.

At the time, Silicon Valley was experiencing a profound and exciting period of expansion. “There was a huge buzz about the place — everyone you talked to was talking about the latest start-up or the latest product release”, recalls Samengo-Turner, who studied modern history at the University of Oxford.

Facebook, having bought Instagram just three years earlier, was beginning to monetise the photo-sharing platform through targeted advertisements. Outside you could often see Google’s prototype self-driving cars trundling around Mountain View, California — home to the internet giant’s corporate HQ, Googleplex. Further along the west coast, Los Angeles-based Netflix debuted its first feature film, presenting an existential threat to the traditional movie-making business.

Also striking that year was investment bank Goldman Sachs’ decision to hold their annual shareholders meeting in San Francisco for the first time — sending a clear message to Wall Street that serious money was to be made in tech. “There was a realisation that Silicon Valley was now really powerful not just in terms of the products and technology it developed but in the wider marketplace too,” says Samengo-Turner.

Five years and one global pandemic later, the tech industry continues to grow at a seemingly unstoppable rate, with the largest players pulling in trillion-dollar valuations. Meanwhile, with nations under lockdown, companies like online retailing behemoth Amazon and streaming service Netflix have thrived during the coronavirus crisis. At the same time, Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms quickly became integral to the great working from home experiment.

Applications for Allen & Overy's Winter Vacation Scheme close on Sunday 18 October 2020

Despite concerns that such unprecedented growth could see a repeat of the 2000 dot-com crash, Samengo-Turner doesn’t believe we’re in a similar tech bubble. “The large established tech companies have a significant balance sheet strength and real heft to them. The idea that Amazon’s success constitutes a bubble, for example, just doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

As the tech sector continues to expand, Allen & Overy has evolved to meet the changing demands of clients. “These clients have often grown out of nothing in the space of two to three years and suddenly are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A lot of CEOs I advise are younger than me! It’s an important shift for us — so we have retooled and reformed our products to work for them,” says Samengo-Turner.

He points to Allen & Overy’s 2017 launch of Fuse, its London-based innovation hub which provides a place for its lawyers, clients and start-ups to develop tech-based solutions to legal, regulatory and deal-related problems. The firm’s ‘lawtech training contract’ also highlights the importance of tech-fluency among the next generation of lawyers.

Evolving can sometimes be as simple as relaxing your dress code. “I have some clients who actually say to me before I start working for them, ‘I don’t want any of your lawyers coming round in suits. We find it off-putting to have people wearing corporate wear,’” he adds.

But there are challenges ahead which lawyers must also adapt to. Mounting concerns around data privacy and anti-competitive behaviour within the sector, as well as calls for governments to break up Big Tech, have led to increased market regulation. Meanwhile, the ongoing geopolitical battle over TikTok, a Chinese-owned app known for its viral lip-syncing videos, reflects the difficulty with regulating tech companies that don’t necessarily operate within borders.

As tech companies explore new territory through their products and services, they must also establish under what rules their offering is governed. From the gig economy’s self-employment debate to regulating artificial intelligence — lawyers must keep up with developments around tech and frame advice accordingly, says Samengo-Turner.

What the video-conferencing revolution means for Silicon Valley is also unclear. Much of the city’s allure stems from the key institutionalised ingredients essential for a vibrant tech scene: a young population of tech engineers, good universities in the local area and, importantly, plenty of investment capital. But amid San Francisco’s rising living costs and the call among Big Tech employees for permanent remote-working following COVID-19, innovation is unlikely to remain exclusive to the Californian tech centre. “The idea that you have to be in Silicon Valley in order to be successful just isn’t true anymore,” says Samengo-Turner.

The same question applies to the legal profession which, despite being typically risk averse, remarkably embraced agile working during the pandemic.

As someone who usually splits their time between London and San Francisco, Samengo-Turner is no stranger to remote-working. In fact, it’s Allen & Overy’s existing systems, designed to facilitate interaction between its geographically dispersed lawyers, that enabled a “remarkably smooth” transition to an entirely virtual approach during the lockdown.

As lawyers gradually return to their City offices, Samengo-Turner hopes a balanced approach eventually becomes the norm: upholding the advantages of being together in an office environment while protecting the flexibility and perks of working from home.

And while it may be possible to advise international clients from your bedroom, Samengo-Turner suspects that eventually we’ll respond to “a very human urge to meet in-person, to break bread together, and to celebrate triumphs and commiserate when set backs occur”. Perhaps an upside from the lockdown, he continues, will be that when lawyers travel across the globe to secure a deal, negotiate a contract or meet with clients to strategise, they will now better appreciate the “genuine joy” in being able to do so.

William Samengo-Turner will be speaking alongside other Allen & Overy lawyers at ‘Re-imagining global law firms in the age of remote-working’, a virtual student event taking place tomorrow (Tuesday 15 September). The event is fully booked, however you can check out the Legal Cheek Student Events page for details of our other upcoming events.

Applications for Allen & Overy's Winter Vacation Scheme close on Sunday 18 October 2020

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