Technology, media & telecommunications

Technology, media & telecommunications

Mark Watts

Bristows LLP

University: University of Oxford
Degree: Physics

Technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) is one of the fastest-developing sectors of the legal market. The constant evolution of technology pushes legal boundaries and begs for the provision of innovative legal advice. In advising their clients, TMT lawyers are required not only to apply black letter law, but also to take into account market developments, regulatory considerations, and commercial and technical issues. Outsourcing continues to be a particularly hot topic.

It is probably a stretch to describe his decision to become a lawyer as a Damascene conversion, but physics graduate Mark Watts’s entry into the profession was certainly sudden. When I was starting out in my career around 1991, Bristows ran a now-legendary job advert in New Scientist, which didn’t say anything – not even the firm’s name – except to pose the question, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a lawyer?’ with a phone number underneath,” he recalls. “Like many of the lawyers who joined Bristows at that time, I was a New Scientist reader and I saw the ad and called the number – the next thing I knew, I had a training contract. Perhaps I should have also explored the Bar, but the way I joined the profession – by responding to that ad – meant that this never came into it.”

Historically, Bristows has always attracted a very healthy proportion of lawyers with science and engineering backgrounds, as well as prior expertise in other fields besides law more generally. Mark enjoyed the new environment he found himself in: “It was a lot more sociable than my PhD! I had a gang of physics mates, but it was also typical for me to spend long nights on my own in the laboratory. One of the reasons I was interested in changing to the legal profession was that the work is more based around people.”

Data privacy

After qualifying, Mark left Bristows for a spell in an in-house legal department, but returned to the firm in 2003. Since then, he has been able to develop highly specialist know-how. “I would still describe myself as a commercial IT lawyer and I used to have a very broad practice,” he explains. “I handled outsourcing, online and data matters – anything to do with computers, really. As the group has become more successful, with lots of work coming in, we have been able to expand the department, which now has four partners. This has enabled me to specialise further, so these days most of my work is to do with data privacy.” 

Clearly, data privacy is a huge issue and looks set to remain a defining one of the first half of the 21st century. The range of matters that Mark advises on therefore directly affect how business, politics and society work. “We advise big technology companies – particularly online providers such as Google, Twitter and Spotify – on how to comply with the law. This may sound obvious, but for the companies that I have described, it actually means advising them on their product development,” he explains. “This is where having a ‘techy’ background comes in handy, as you wouldn’t be able to advise some of these companies without knowing, say, what an API or a cookie is. Sometimes we literally sit down with the engineers and brainstorm how the product should be developed so that it both does what they want and meets the legal requirements.”

Mark identifies two other broad categories into which to divide his work. “Another aspect of our practice involves advising big multinationals – for example, IBM – which operate in hundreds of different countries. Some countries have similar laws in this area, while others have none at all. It is complicated to say the least, so we work with those multinationals to ensure that they comply with the law everywhere that they do business in a way that is consistent and that doesn’t drive everyone crazy by trying to match every particular legal requirement in every country.”

The final area is a form of litigation. “Data privacy is a regulatory area of law, which means that there are regulators which have the task of enforcing the law and which will therefore try to fine organisations which are not meeting those requirements,” he explains. “If a big client has a data breach – and if you watch the news, you will know that these do happen – we will typically be involved in helping to defend the client from enforcement action.”

“To be a good privacy lawyer or IT lawyer, you need an interest in technology and a level of curiosity and inquisitiveness”

Ground-breaking cases

Mark has already been involved in two defining data privacy cases. “Some of the team here worked on the Google v Costella ‘right to be forgotten’ case, a historic case that was amazing to be a part of, really,” he reflects. “But perhaps the biggest high point of my career was the Google Street View case in 2010, a vast piece of international litigation involving all of Europe, the United States, Korea – it was incredible. I spoke to the client every day for three or four hours, for about nine months straight. It was the most intense period of work that I have experienced and the case still probably remains the biggest privacy issue that there has ever been.”

One of the biggest challenges of the job is managing the tension between the law and the practical reality of constantly advancing mass-market technology. “The law as it stands today was written in the mid-1990s, when there was the Internet, but no worldwide web, apps, social media, big data or cloud computing,” explains Mark. “All of these things have become a fact of life for most organisations, but the law overseeing them was made when they were not yet invented. Since 2012, the European Commission has been developing new law to replace the old. The new law is supposed to be more relevant to modern technology, but unfortunately it is in many ways worse, in my opinion, because it is just not reflective of modern life, where information exchanges are going on every second, all over the world.”

Complete package

Nonetheless, there is nothing else that Mark would rather be doing: “It is a really interesting – almost perfect – intersection of things that I find interesting. There is a lot of technology involved, as well as a lot of law because I’m involved in the regulatory side of things. It might sound obvious to say that the job involves a lot of law, but that is actually not the case in other areas of IT law. There is also a big commercial aspect to the role, as well as a human rights dimension in the right to privacy. Plus I work with great people – the technology clients I work with tend to attract the kind of people who are easy to get on with.”

Looking at the commercial side of the solicitors’ profession more widely, Mark expresses concern at the long-hours cultures evident at many firms: “The majority of big law firms make people work too hard or create an environment in which people feel like it is their choice to work long hours, but really it is expected. The danger for significant parts of the profession is that the careers available will be unsustainable, where lawyers will work like that for a couple of years before getting out. That may be a business model for certain law firms, but I don’t think it is healthy when it becomes the norm for an entire profession.”

And those interested in becoming technology lawyers should bear in mind the following advice: “To be a good privacy lawyer or IT lawyer, you need an interest in technology and a certain level of curiosity and inquisitiveness. You also need to be pragmatic and able to get on with people. It is not the case that lawyers sit in their offices and the work just comes in – it’s all about networks and meeting people. And far from being a downside, if you like meeting and working with people, it is a great career to be in.” 

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