New SCL Chair’s Vision for the Future

February 29, 2016

This is an exciting time for technology and the legal frameworks that touch and are touched by technology. This Society exists to enable us all to share and learn from each other in our chosen area. We are a collective of some of the brightest and most innovative minds, undertaking ground-breaking work. If we can focus that together as a single voice then I believe that we can help to influence and shape the progression of the applicable legal frameworks, for the benefit of our organisations and our clients and in such a way as to ensure that the legal systems support tomorrow’s technologies and businesses. I discussed this with Richard Susskind the other day and he encapsulated the point this way: “The SCL should be on Newsnight or Radio 4 as the voice of technology and legal issues”. Let’s see what we can do.

But first of all, and most importantly of all, can I offer a huge thank you to Roger Bickerstaff, the current Trustees and the administration team without whom none of this would happen. We can all be enthusiasts, further we can all voice opinions as to what could be better from the sidelines, but it takes commitment and effort to actually make a change. Roger as Chair has taken the Society to the next level in a calm but insistent way. It is a huge honour to follow in his footsteps and a daunting task, but it is a task which I am looking forward to taking on.

So who am I?

I have been a Trustee for three years. I qualified as a Tech lawyer at Bird & Bird where I became partner and stayed until 2004. From 2005 I joined DLA Piper at the same time as DLA merged with Piper Rudnick and with Gray Carey. I’m lucky enough to include among my colleagues and friends two of the Group Chairs and former Trustees; Richard Bonnar and Kit Burden. I’ve been location head for IPT, UK Group Head and have just passed the baton from my most recent role as UK Managing Partner. During all that time I have remained a technology enthusiast.

At University I studied Richard Stallman, the Gnu Project and copyleft. A few years later I was delighted to see him in person, giving an impassioned plea against the then pending Software Patents Directive. Thinking back over the issues I and colleagues have advised upon so far, we wrote Internet Use guidance for government in the mid-90’s – pre Twitter and Facebook – pondering whether express permission by way of a signed agreement should be put in place to link websites! A team of us wrote a report for Ovum on Video on Demand, probably a decade before the bandwidth would allow this to occur. We all got caught up in the excitement of impending doom as the event horizon (year 2000) approached. Instead we merely nursed self-induced hangovers rather than technological ones. More recently, as Dame Wendy Hall discussed in last year’s SCL Annual Lecture, we have seen the explosion of social media, data, cloud, IoT and M2M.

What do these things have in common? They relate to technology which is not constrained by geographical boundaries, nor the traditional boundaries of legal systems. As such, it is my intention to build upon the great work of the Society to date, and seek to further internationalise SCL. Lawyers training and entering practice today will, more than ever before, need a strong appreciation of their domestic law, to build up awareness of practice, and to understand the technology. But, more than that, they will need more than a passing appreciation for the extra-territorial aspects too. Whether that be enforcement of proceedings, or differences in approach between common law and civil law countries. The IFCLA Conference this summer, with SCL as host society and the UK as host nation, gives us the springboard to take this forward. I urge you all to involve colleagues and clients in IFCLA so as to make it an event of the highest quality. Then, looking ahead, we will seek to involve visiting experts in our SCL events to pose the counter view and widen our appreciation.

As well as an international focus, there are at least two other areas where I think we can make a difference; firstly on the ‘hard law’ issues and secondly for the student community. The Foundations of IT Law Programme is brilliant. Now in its second iteration, the interest seems as strong as ever with lawyers, contract managers and procurement professionals joining in. Meanwhile we mustn’t forget those who want a deeper dive into the issues. As such we will be seeking ways to balance up the Foundation work with ‘Masterclasses’, bringing together experts to debate the trickiest issues.

Another focus of mine will be the student population. Currently our relations are developing well with QMUL and Leeds Beckett University, but why stop there? Consistent with our charitable objectives, we hope to reach back into law faculties and computer engineering faculties so as to harness tomorrow’s lawyers and developers and the FinTech, RegTech start-up community too. Those seeking a training contract will be able to show a real interest in their subject from SCL membership whilst a student, and those setting up in new businesses will do so in a way which at least shows awareness of the legal issues, even if not entirely consistent with them.

One final comment from me at this time: any change in leadership brings a new style. I will not be changing anything for the sake of it; this is a very well run Society, indeed the envy of many of our international peers. However, a time of changeover is a time to take stock and ensure that we are serving you, the membership community in the right way. As such, I urge you to get in touch, whether with me, other Trustees, Caroline Gould or with your local interest groups, to ensure that this Society is as relevant to your professional life as it can be.

I look forward to hearing from you. 

Mark O’Conor is a Partner at DLA Piper (UK) LLP: mark.o’