SCL Junior Lawyers’ Group Report: Talkin bout my generation

January 21, 2011

Earlier this week I caught the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. That’s the one where ‘Indy’ reunites with his father, played by Sean Connery and his unchanging Scottish accent. When the film was made Harrison Ford was pushing 50, which gives force to the running joke that his father can’t stop calling him Junior, even though he is the rough-hewn Professor of Archaeology who had already thwarted the Nazis in previous escapades. 

So what does this popcorn film review tell us? That the definition of Junior is relative and last night, at the inaugural meeting of the SCL Junior Lawyers Group, Chris James of UBS explained the relativistic thinking behind the creation of the new group and its remit.  The group is not restricted to members with a certain number of years PQE but is there for people who may be moving from another area of law, have retrained from a previous occupation or are, indeed, just starting out. What matters is a shared interest in wanting to know more about IT law and wanting to talk to others going through the same learning curve.  

Chris introduced the main event, Simon Deane-Johns, playing the Sean Connery role but with more hair, whose task was to set out some of the longer term trends affecting the emerging IT lawyer. As ever, his thoughts were enjoyably challenging and subversive in tone. His first observation, inspired by the work of blogger David Armano, was that social networks are creating ripples of data so that the IT lawyer’s challenge will be determined by those data flows rather than IT hardware. 

He then enlarged on this theme using examples drawn from the credit crunch, media coverage of student riots and, almost unavoidably, Wikileaks. In all these cases, institutions, defined later on as organisations that seek solutions to internal problems rather than those of their customers, are being undermined by the data made available by the emergence of the Internet. The short sellers, betting against the subprime mortgage market, backed their position after reading the underlying data on e-mailed and web-based documents that others were ignoring while Wikileaks has not been stopped despite the best efforts of the US to cut off their commercial partners, further eroding the power and trust of government. 

The credit crunch also gave prominence to the Black Swan theories of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which essentially say that individuals and society are psychologically blind to the chance of unpredictable, high-impact events. Simon gave the Internet as an example of such an event. Indeed, reaching further back, the Donoghue v Stevenson snail in a bottle was a Black Swan.  The lesson is that the junior lawyer should minimise the downside of such a Black Swan event. One way to do that, he suggested, is for lawyers to align themselves more closely with the businesses and organisations they work for, getting out of the office and helping to shape the rules and regulations that will emerge over the next generation.  Also, step back and think hard about the extremely long-term in the way that a group on the project are undertaking, as that may just give some clues as to where the challenges will come in the next 100 years. 

An intriguing debate ensued on whether that was the right course of action as part of what lawyer’s provide  is an independent, ‘academic’ approach. Simon countered that with the example of a private practice lawyer who knew that subprime was ‘nuts’ but carried on drafting derivatives all the same. That’s why lawyers are vulnerable: they support today’s mainstream. Debate on that, and many other questions, spilled over into an extremely convivial post-talk drink. While not everyone was convinced about Simon’s thesis, there was no doubt the 70 or so present were fired up with thoughts on the long term and their role as lawyers within it.  

David Chaplin is an SCL member and director of Bath Publishing, online law publishers.