University: University of Bristol
The energy and natural resources sector is an important part of the legal landscape and is currently making more headlines than ever before. It covers, among other things, oil and gas projects, pipelines, refineries, liquefied natural gas, nuclear, renewables, and water and wastewater. Emerging energy initiatives such as biofuels and carbon capture and trading also feature. The key legal issues centre on the development and financing of projects, M&A, disputes and trading, and may be either domestic or international in scope.
William Jones, a senior associate in RPC’s energy insurance practice, always wanted to be a spy. However, rather than embarking on a career in espionage following university, William focused on his other major passion. “I’d always been interested in the law. I chose the solicitor route rather than the Bar because I enjoy working in teams, dealing directly with commercial clients, and taking account of your clients’ commercial drivers. I also like taking a more holistic view of a commercial disagreement rather than looking at it in strictly legal terms.”
Following his legal studies, William undertook a training contract at RPC. “I was looking for a firm that had a broad range of practice areas” he remarks, “because as a law student it’s quite difficult to really know what you want to end up doing until you’ve done it. I wanted to go somewhere that offered me four very different seats and at the end feel confident that I was doing something that interested me and that I wanted a career in.”
At the end of his training contract, William chose to specialise in the energy insurance field: “I was very much drawn in by the international nature of the work and the fact that, having a politics background, it had a political angle, and it was often contentious.”
Each day is different
Coverage advice and litigation are the two main planks of William’s job. As he explains, the coverage side entails “advising insurance companies in respect of large energy and industrial claims, for example, if their insured has encountered a peril such as a hurricane, defective machinery or terror attack, and seeks to recover under their insurance policy. You’re advising insurers in those circumstances as to whether the insurance policy will respond to the claim. Occasionally, insurers and insureds have very different interpretations of a peril or a policy term and you end up in court.”
"I like having to become very knowledgeable about very niche issues very quickly"
William enjoys the litigation side of his job because “it’s multi-faceted, often involves ultra-high value claims of $100 million or more, the claims tend to be based overseas and subject to different law and jurisdiction, and you tend to have to take account of all sorts of geopolitical issues in the context of advising your clients. The international nature of the work presents opporutnities to travel and work overseas. I have worked in RPC's offices in both London and Singapore. When people read the word ‘insurance’, they tend to switch off, however, in this context it’s actually very interesting.”
A recent case saw William working at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) and the law through the use of predictive coding. “In essence, it’s a computer programme that can be trained to understand relevance,” he explains. “You train the software to understand what documents are likely to be relevant within a large volume of material. It saves a huge amount of money as you only have to review a fraction of the documents, which is great news for clients and for paralegals! It’s one way I think that technology and AI is advancing the legal profession. In our particular case, we worked with data scientists in California and developed a methodology that would enable two disputing parties to work together to train the software so that it would recognise both parties’ understanding of relevance.” Above all, William enjoys the variety of his job and the fact that each day is different. “I like having to become very knowledgeable about very niche issues very quickly,” he says. “You come in one morning knowing nothing about something to do with a particular pipeline, for example, and by the next day you need to have ingested enough information to have a considered argument with another lawyer about that pipeline in circumstances where you know that they too have only been reading about it for two days.”
The price of oil is a key variable in the energy insurance world. “Where the price is high, companies in the oil business have more profit and it effects the way in which they deal with risk and with their insurance companies,” he explains. “That dynamic changes with the oil price and it will be interesting to see how it shifts now that oil prices are on the up.”
Cyber risk is another hot topic. “Generally, I think people are unaware of its potential significance,” William says, “but there’s every possibility that where control systems aboard a vessel are compromised, or an oil refinery cooling system is hacked, it could result in very significant damage. Insurance companies are coming to terms with how to write these risks, whether they agree to cover them and on what terms, and whether they need a separate policy for this type of peril. Insurance is about risk; it’s about determining how likely something is to happen and how severe the problem would be if it happened. In the context of cyber risks, it’s very difficult for insurers and insureds to get a proper grip of that at present, so the next five years will be interesting in this regard.”
Be open minded
Understanding your clients’ business and commercial pressures are considerations that trainees hoping to work in commercial law, including the energy insurance field, should keep in mind. “When you’re studying law, you really see the law as an end in itself,” he observes. “However, the law for your clients is an expensive tool that they use when necessary to achieve their ends. It’s not an end in itself. Understanding that early is quite important. You work in a service sector and you are a cost. You need to justify your existence.”
Working well with other people is another fundamental aspect of the job. “You are always working with someone, be it your clients or other lawyers based overseas, technical experts, professors from obscure universities with very niche interests as well as your team,” William explains. “There’s a lot of time spent working alongside other people and if that’s not something you enjoy this might not be an area of law that would interest you.”
William also recommends being open minded at the start of your career. “Try to do four varied seats and keep an eye on the day-to-day job and the work-life balance of the senior members of the team, and ask yourself whether you want their job. That’s the key question. Your experience as a trainee is not your experience as an associate, senior associate or partner. You need to consider whether you like the work that you’re going to be doing and the pressure that it brings.”