After a period acting as SCL’s Joint Chair with Richard Stephens, Bill Jones has now accepted a period of office as SCL’s sole Chair. Laurence Eastham interviewed him for the magazine.
LE: After your spell as joint chair of SCL, you are about to take on the full role of Chair. It seems to me like a good time to reflect on the recent achievements of SCL and to hear about plans for the future. But I would like to start by asking you about your career and how you got into IT law.
BJ: I joined Wragge & Co as a trainee in 1982 and shortly after qualification joined the IP team where I became involved in a range of contentious and non-contentious work. A lot of the contentious work involved interlocutory injunctions for infringement of industrial designs in engineering products. As the IT industry grew, and we set up a separate team to deal with IT, I became involved with what became a steady flow of disputes: they fell into two broad categories, those relating to copyright infringement on the one hand and those of a classical “fitness for purpose” kind on the other. User clients developed an appetite for better contracts to avoid “fitness for purpose” arguments and so my non-contentious practice in connection with software development and integration contracts grew from there, to the point where I stopped doing contentious work to focus entirely on non-contentious. In recent years my focus has been very much on outsourcing and also on large scale systems integration, very much reflecting market trends.
LE: How did you first get involved with SCL?
BJ: I joined SCL some years ago because of the training events it offered. The quality seemed generally high and it was also useful to have the opportunity to network with fellow practitioners. Somehow I got drawn into giving training sessions rather than just listening to them! I think SCL had a great success in devising the Boot Camp programme. It recognised just at the right time that there was a real training need for the many more junior lawyers in private practice who had been drawn into what was a rapidly expanding sector. In the late nineties and early 2000s there were fantastic opportunities for IT lawyers, for example in connection with Y2K and the internet boom, and the training needs followed. One of the continuing challenges for SCL is to keep its finger on the pulse of developments and respond appropriately.
LE: The Trustees seem to me to have wider responsibilities but to share them more equably than was the case under the old structure when the job of Chairman may have been more onerous. Has that been your experience?
BJ: When I first became a Trustee, each Trustee was asked to adopt a specific set of responsibilities. Mine were concerned initially with the encouragement of the regional groups, although in the last year one of my main responsibilities, jointly with Clive Davies, has been organisation of the annual conference. It is really important that each of the Trustees feels properly involved and so far as possible that we play to each other’s strengths. Glen Davis played a very significant role for many years on the Media Committee which is a good example of this working well in practice. I should also point out that none of the Trustees would survive without the brilliant support we receive from Ruth Baker and Caroline Gould in the “back office”.
LE: I know that I am most impressed by the relevance, quality and frequency of recent SCL events – whether seminars, conferences or group meetings. Is that the main focus for the Trustees and how do you go about indentifying suitable topics?
BJ: It is a priority to offer a very high quality programme of relevant events. The events programme is a standing item on our agenda but a lot of the credit also lies with the group committees, who work hard to provide a good programme in which content and format is continually reviewed and refreshed. It is also important that we encourage ideas from all the members and remain responsive to suggestions and ideas from both within and outside SCL. One of the great things about IT as a practice area is that it is never static – ten years ago no-one would have forecast that outsourcing would have become such a strong business model, or that offshoring would have come so emphatically into the foreground.
LE: Do you worry that SCL is no longer much involved with legal technology issues – there was a time when it focused on technical issues like software implementation and strategy but the focus is now very much on IT law. Is it now fair to say that it is an organisation for IT lawyers?
BJ: It is a natural development now that legal technology is mainstream. Also , as things stand today, there are other organisations, some with their roots in SCL, which deal with aspects of technology for lawyers. We are still involved when appropriate - it is significant that Professor Richard Susskind returned to us in March to deliver his lecture on future developments in the legal practice and the influence technology will have on that – his lecture attracted huge interest and has been one of our key events this year.
LE: Recently SCL has been responding to consultations, from Parliament and government. Is that something you want to see more of?
BJ: I think it is important for SCL to respond to consultation requests. It helps our profile and so there is a degree of self interest in this but, more importantly, SCL is a natural forum for participation in forming new law, policies and guidelines. Also I believe that participating in these exercises helps members develop their own thinking. I suspect that in many cases SCL members would not find the time or energy to respond as individuals or under their employer’s umbrella alone. Responding via SCL jointly with other interested members works well for the individuals concerned and so is a win-win exercise.
LE: So what would you say has been the highlight of your work with SCL to date?
BJ: I think the highlight for me has been the Annual Conferences – they are not just informative but they are enjoyable, and I have to admit to learning as much about some of the more esoteric practices in IT law in the conference bar at midnight as I have in the formal sessions!
LE: Turning to the prospects and plans, what are your priorities for the coming period as sole SCL Chair?
BJ: First we need to keep innovating. Ideas such as the webinars and the ability to earn CPD points via the website are two examples of good new ideas which we have implemented recently. Secondly we need to keep the right balance between the various “churches” within SCL. Personally I would like to see greater representation from in-house lawyers. Their perspective and experience is very different from lawyers in private practice and it is excellent to have as many in-house lawyers as possible actively involved. We have worked hard to encourage that this year, but it is very much a work in progress. Finally I would like to see SCL even more involved at the cutting edge of legal developments – we can achieve this in various ways, for example through active involvement in consultations by government, but also by carefully chosen initiatives with other organisations such as universities and research institutions. SCL’s membership numbers are increasing and so things generally are going well. However there is no room for complacency and I think it is particularly important that the Trustee Board works hard to encourage and foster as much active participation as possible from our membership not just in connection with activities generally but particularly in connection with these various initiatives.