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 32% 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 with depend heavily on the UK's future relationship with the EU.
- The public are becoming much more aware – and sceptical – of how information is collected and dispersed in the digital sphere. The care.data NHS information sharing scheme which was aimed at improving patient care closed in 2016 after public privacy concerns, and in 2015 both Google and Facebook were subject to data privacy cases. The EU has also agreed on new data protection rules with the aim of building a digital single market.
- A trend for mergers in the industry continues, sometimes throwing up competition concerns. In 2016 the Competition and Markets Authorities approved BT's £12.5 billion merger with EE, but the European Commission blocked Hutchinson 3G's combination with O2. Globally, the market saw Microsoft buy LinkedIn for $26 billion and Dell purchase EMC for $67 billion.
- 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. Recently, a fatal crash involving one of Tesla Motors's Model S cars while the driver was using its 'autopilot' function raised serious questions about product liability and the appropriate regulation, especially as the car takes on some, but not all, of the driver's responsibility.
- Pokémon Go has brought the world's attention to augmented reality technology which combines the real and virtual worlds (even though weather forecasters on TV have technically been using it for decades). Legally speaking, its evolution could raise issues in a number of areas including intellectual property, as the product may adapt copyrighted material, as well as trespassing, as players sometimes enter private land.
- As tech companies battle for the mobile and tablet market, there has been an upsurge in patent disputes, most notably between Apple and Samsung. Both agreed to drop all litigation between them outside the US, but their war over Apple's patents has reached the US Supreme Court.
- China is aiming to become a premier jurisdiction for intellectual property, trade marks and competition, but it still has issues with domestic companies that trade mark international products which have not yet reached the Chinese market. For example, domestic phone maker Shenzhen Baili defeated Apple in a major intellectual property case regarding the iPhone 6, but Apple has been allowed to continue selling the phone in China pending an appeal, suggesting that the court understands the position of the multinational company. Commercially, there is plenty of room to manoeuvre in emerging markets, as regulations are still looser than in Western Europe.
- Chat apps like Whatsapp have now overtaken SMS as the most common way messages are sent via mobiles, while Skype, FaceTime and similar software have replaced 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.
- The lines between technology outsourcing and business process outsourcing (BPO) have become blurred. Smart outsourcing – the concept of outsourcing parts of a company, one part at a time, often using different suppliers – is in vogue at present, as is multisourcing (using many different suppliers on shorter term contracts).
- 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 London, they may well be in breach of the Data Protection Act because UK laws are much stricter than US ones.
- The government's rollout of superfast broadband across the UK continues. The Department for Culture Media and Sport estimates that 90% of UK premises currently have access to superfast, up from 83% in 2015; the aim is for this to be 95% by 2017.