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. At some firms work related to technology and outsourcing might be grouped with areas like IP and contracts under a general 'commercial' umbrella.
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.
- Digital tech currently contributes around £150 billion to the UK economy and in 2019 grew six times faster than any other sector. There have been concerns about a North-South divide since London attracts a large amount of talent, leaving companies in Manchester and Leeds in need of employees. That said, in 2019 Manchester was the fastest growing city in Europe in terms of tech investment: investment increased 277% between 2018 and 2019, from £48 million to £181 million. It's been argued that this growing reputation for the UK being a technology leader could help protect the economy in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
- Tech has been one of the few sectors to continue to see rising investment in throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Between 23 March 2020 and 27 April 2020, the level of investment in UK tech startups increased by 34% compared to the same period in 2019.
- The prospect of Brexit still causes concern in terms of recruiting talent – opting out of EU free movement will 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 European 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. In addition to the abolition of mobile roaming charges in 2017, the Commission plans to implement 5G across the whole of Europe by 2025. In the first significant divergence from EU law as a result of Brexit, the UK decided not to implement the new EU copyright law reforms known as the EU Copyright Directive, which aimed to give content creators more rights and more control over where their material appears online.
- According to Deloitte, 5G is set to “become the connectivity technology of choice in the next decade or two.” It has had a staggered launch in the UK since May 2019. Although it was the last network provider in the UK to launch 5G, O2 was the only company to do so without using the controversial telecoms company Huawei. Conspiracy theories surrounding 5G have grown dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to vandalism of 5G masts and general infrastructure that has affected mobile coverage.
- The ensuing irony was that following Covid-19 lockdown measures, there was a significant increase in the need for digital connectivity and an increase in demand on telecoms companies. In response, major players introduced various measures such as more proactive monitoring of traffic. Netflix, for example, cut streaming quality in Europe for 30 days in order to lessen the demand on internet bandwidth.
- In response to concerns over privacy, the EU created the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came 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 can mean a maximum fine of €20 million or 4% of a company's global turnover if it’s higher. Following complaints by privacy advocates in France – filed the day GDPR legislation came into effect – Google was fined a record €50 million by the French regulator for failing to sufficiently inform users about how Google collected personal data to tailor adverts. Meanwhile, the ICO issued a £180 million fine – the biggest to date – to British Airways following 2018’s hacking scandal.
- The first month of GDPR saw a sharp rise in the number of complaints to regulators across Europe, signifying public interest in the new regulations. Between 2017/18 and 2018/19, the number of data protection complaints received by the ICO nearly doubled, standing at 41,661.
- Information harvested by data consultant Cambridge Analytica from Facebook was allegedly used to influence both the US presidential election and the EU referendum. The scandal has since led to the closure of Cambridge Analytica, while Facebook was fined £5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission, the largest fine ever imposed by the US regulator.
- In mid-2019, the Competition and Markets Authority launched its new Digital Markets Strategy, which aims to better regulate anti-competitive behaviour and enforce consumer protection in the technology marketplace.