In a nutshell
Technology, telecoms and outsourcing lawyers distinguish themselves from general commercial advisers because of their specific industry know-how. They combine a keen understanding of the latest advances in various technologies with a thorough knowledge of the ever-changing law that regulates, protects and licenses them. As forms of media and new technologies converge, clients have come to rely on technology lawyers’ innovation and imagination in offering rigorous legal solutions to maximise and protect income and ideas. The majority of the top 50 firms possess dedicated groups of lawyers. There are also specialists within smaller commercial firms and a number of niche firms.
What lawyers do
- Advise on commercial transactions and draft the requisite documents. There is a heavy emphasis on risk management.
- Assist in the resolution of disputes, commonly by arbitration or other settlement procedures as this is a court-averse sector. Many disputes relate to faulty or unsatisfactory software or hardware.
- Help clients police their IT and web-based reputation and assets. Cybersquatting, ownership of database information and the Data Protection Act are common topics.
- Give clients mainstream commercial, corporate and financial advice.
- Specialised outsourcing lawyers represent customers and suppliers in the negotiation and drafting of agreements for the provision of IT or other services by a third party.
Realities of the job
- You need to be familiar with the latest regulations and their potential impact on your client’s business. Does a website need a disclaimer? What measures should your client take to protect data about individuals gathered online?
- You need a good grasp of the jargon of your chosen industry, firstly to write contracts but also so you can understand your clients’ instructions. Read trade journals like Media Lawyer and Computer Weekly or magazines such as Wired or New Scientist.
- In this frontier world, gut instinct matters. One in-house lawyer made what looked like a risky move from BT to little-known internet auction site, eBay. Six years later he moved to head up Skype’s legal team.
- The ability to think laterally and creatively is a must, especially when the application of a client’s technology or content throws up entirely new issues.
- High-end private sector outsourcing involves complex, high-value and increasingly multi-jurisdictional work. Mostly, it is the larger law firms that handle such deals. In the public sector, deals involve UK government departments, local authorities and the suppliers of services to those entities.
- Growing at a rate 50% faster than the economy as a whole, the UK digital technology sector is booming, but there are concerns about a North-South divide as London attracts a large amount of talent, leaving companies in Manchester and Leeds in need of employees. The prospect of Brexit deepens this concern as opting out of free movement in the EU would further limit the accessible talent pool. Brexit could also have a major effect on data laws and investment, though how this will pan out will depend heavily on the UK's future relationship with the EU.
- The EU Commission is currently pushing what it refers to as the Digital Single Market, a wide-ranging raft of measures designed to unify regulations and business practices in tech-related industries and services. One recent concrete achievement is the abolition of mobile roaming charges as of June 2017, which means that no extra charges though calling, texting or using mobile data abroad will be incurred. Further proposals include rules to promote investment in mobile networks, one of the aims being to have 5G across the whole of Europe by 2025.
- The abolition of roaming charges did cause some consternation. The rules mean that an operator can charge a phone company peer up to €7.70 per gigabyte. If the customer using the phone company's network pays less than that the operator will suffer a loss. As a concession, if operators have 3% knocked of their net margin they can introduce roaming fees. Nordic operators are expected to use this loophole.
- In response to concerns over privacy, the EU has created the General Data Protection Regulation, due to come into force on 25 May 2018. It places much more onerous restrictions on organisations that process data, requiring that records be kept of all personal data, that organisations gain and be able to prove active consent before collecting data, as well as being able to show what it's used for, who it goes to, and the protections in place to ensure it does not fall into unintended hands. Non-compliance could lead to huge fines of up to €20 million or, if the sum is larger, 4% of global turnover.
- Technological progress keeps the legal and regulatory world playing catch-up. For example, the virtual currency Bitcoin is difficult to track as it can be traded anonymously, 3D printing brings intellectual property implications, and copyrighted material can be easily downloaded onto mobile devices. The prospect of driverless cars raises serious questions about product liability and the appropriate regulation. There is some expectation that there will be an increasing shift away from personal to product liability.
- As tech companies battle for the mobile and tablet markets, there has been an upsurge in patent disputes. Apple, having been engaged in long-running 'smartphone wars' with Samsung, recently turned its attention to Qualcomm, the biggest mobile chip maker. Qualcomm makes its money primarily by licensing its chips based on the value of the phone they go into. Apple argues that it should only have to pay for the physical value of the chip.
- Chat apps like WhatsAapp have overtaken SMS as the most common way messages are sent via mobiles, while Skype, FaceTime and similar software encroach on phone calls. Concerns over privacy have also penetrated this area and WhatsApp implemented end-to-end encryption in 2016 after the FBI fought Apple to gain access to a suspect's phone.
- With the proliferation of cloud computing in business, data protection has become an area of huge expansion for many law firms. For example, if a New York-based official in a multinational company accesses HR data for staff based in Frankfurt, they may well be in breach of the Data Protection regulations because EU regulations are much stricter than those in the US.
- Cybersecurity is also a concern of both law firms and their clients. Having large troves of confidential customer/client information stolen despite promising to keep it safe is highly damaging. The recent (2017) WannaCry and Petya attacks have brought the issue to the forefront. In the former, 230,000 computers in over 150 countries were reported to have been successfully hacked, affecting organisations ranging from post company FedEx to the NHS. The computers were infected with malware that locked users out and demanded payment through Bitcoin before control would be relinquished.
- Internet Service Providers have recently been put under the onerous obligation of having to record all the web addresses visited by individual users for 12 month periods due to the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act. This ensures that records of what sites were visited and the periods of time they were accessed are available to government bodies as wide-ranging as the National Crime Agency to the Food Standards Authority. Messaging services which make use of encryption are also legally obligated to provide a back door to the government.
- The government's roll-out of super-fast broadband across the UK continues. The Department for Culture Media and Sport estimates that 90% of UK premises currently have access to super-fast, up from 83% in 2015; the aim is for this to be 95% by the end of 2017.