Thoughts on the Tech Law Futures Conference

November 16, 2016

I rarely take the opportunities to rub shoulders with the wider SCL community that conferences provide. But I did attend the Tech Law Futures Conference last week and was genuinely enthused. The day had a terrific set of speakers and edgy, focused topics – congratulations to Neil Brown and Peter Lee on that – and was very well organised as one would expect from SCL. But by the end I was in ruminative mood, and a little confused.

I will not attempt a review of the event – not least because I missed the first session and spent the third pretending to listen while running through my own presentation in my head (and hoping my lips weren’t moving). Moreover, I hope to have a fair proportion of the presentations reflected in articles on the site over the coming weeks – Graham Smith is leading the way on that and his piece can be accessed {here:} and the piece reflecting my presentation is available {here:}. But I do want to share my thoughts following the event.

First, while the sessions on ‘Deregulation and Shaping Regulation’ and ‘RoboLaw’ may have appeared to be a distance apart – one dealing with today’s problems and the other the problems of a distant future – they are actually dealing with problems that flow from present to future and are scarcely separate. Indeed, as Will Wells demonstrated in his account of a real-world application, the future is here already and operating at a farm near you. Yes, even a farm. The rush to extend classic legal rules to resolve developing problems is very real.

Secondly, I was impressed by the open minds that were on show. There was no attempt to be dogmatic – a pretty well universal acknowledgement that what was going to happen and the way in which tech law coped with developments was up in the air. While I know a number of people whose minds are so open as to be almost empty, we are not talking vacuity but acuity – and acute realisation that one can only really make the rules concrete when the facts are known.

Thirdly, I was very much aware that much of the content in the last session, ‘Legal Practice Apps & Technological Change’, echoed the messages sent out by the likes of Neil Cameron, Charles Christian and Martin Telfer in the 1990s: that law firms had to accept the application of technology in their day-to-day workings or become hopelessly inefficient and overwhelmed by those who ‘got it’. That message, albeit at a higher level, continues to be communicated by SCLs President Richard Susskind. But what surprised me was that at least two of the speakers in that session felt that even the larger law firms just did not understand what was involved – and that the long-established reluctance of the legal profession to invest was making it impossible for innovation to take hold. I really thought we were past that. Perhaps there is room for SCL to resurrect its evangelical role.

But I left in some confusion. I had given a presentation which I will reflect in a short article for the magazine and website. The essence of my message, arising from a lengthy analysis of the content of past issues of the magazine, was that the technology that tech lawyers deal with has changed enormously over the last 20 years but that their role and work has not. While keeping pace with technological change and having some understanding of how it all works is vital and very demanding, it is still the case that tech lawyers have to deal with data protection, IP, outsourcing, limitation of liability etc and clients ignoring contracts or agreeing to things without proper advice. That’s as true, I said, if your client is manufacturing robots as it was when your client was a supplier of hard drives to Amstrad. I bitterly regret failing to quote T S Eliot ‘Time present and time past, Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.’

But the thing is that, having sat through a day at the Tech Law Futures Conference, I suspect that the rhetorical attractions of ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ may have blinded me to a sea-change. One could pretend that modern life and medieval life are virtually the same – food, water, breathing, walking, talking haven’t changed – but it is not a seriously sustainable position. Equally, just because the basics of a tech lawyer’s life have not changed from that of a 1990s computer lawyer, it does not follow that the overall life and experience is the same. Perhaps I should in fact have quoted a more recent Nobel Laureate – ‘As the present now, Will later be past, The order is, Rapidly fadin’.

I will faithfully reproduce my presentation in the article but I am not sure even I agree with me any more.

My presentation was supported by a slide showing the computer lawyers in attendance at the IFCLA Conference in 1994. As I pointed out, in those days tech lawyers were in black and white. One thing has certainly changed, judging from the attendees at the Tech Law Futures Conference, tech lawyers are a much more colourful lot these days.