‘Custodians’ of Tech – Harnessing The Risks And Opportunities Of Technology

For someone heading up a technology group, Clifford Chance’s Jonathan Kewley is surprisingly wary of the negative effects tech can have on the world.

The co-head of the operation, which includes 600 lawyers and taps into every practice area at the international firm, limits his children’s screentime, like many other parents.

“Technology can have a negative impact,” he said. “We’ve seen that in online bullying, abuse, the impact that that can have on mental health, particularly in children.”

But it is these threats that have also helped propel the group. In the most recent financial year, revenue from the firm’s tech group grew by over 16%.

Threats of data stealing, cybercrime and racial bias are all important factors for companies to take into account as the role and breadth of technology grows. The metaverse for one, while harbouring an exciting new opportunity for growth, also needs special attention “need to learn how to play in that space safely”.

It is these more tangible, real concerns that have been at the forefront of Kewley’s practice.

“The concept of the internet causing you or your children harm, or minority groups or vulnerable groups harm… That wasn’t a thing 20 years ago, and now it’s a whole new area of law.” 

Rapid advancement

Since starting his career in law over 15 years ago, Kewley has witnessed technological advances continue at a rapid rate. As a result, new opportunities in law have arisen—with people in the industry like Kewley primed to take advantage and link them into older areas of law.

“We’ve seen a whole new area of law develop, which has been driven by innovation. Huge companies and huge value have been created out of tech. We have seen products created that push the boundaries of law, and to an extent, that law didn’t exist before,” he explained.

As opportunities have boomed, revenue has followed. leading to the most recent revenue rise.

Alongside revenue growth, the group has hired several lawyers in recent months, including that of Kornbacher, whose appointment marks the start of significant further U.S. tech expansion, and two London additions–technology partner Zayed Al Jamil from Norton Rose Fulbright and IP partner Don McCombie from Ashurst.

Cross-practice, cross-border

The tech group, launched in 2017, features lawyers from across every practice at the firm. Accordingly, the group can offer clients a multidisciplinary approach to any tech-related matters they may have, Kewley claims.

He explained: “Law firms have been very obsessed with practice areas historically. But actually, the product is what our clients care about. They don’t care what practice we sit in, they care about getting the best advice. And for tech, that advice often comes from a hybrid group of people.”

And given technology itself eclipses geographical borders, the leadership also reflects that. Kewley is one of three co-heads, working with Paul Landless in Singapore and Devika Kornbacher in the U.S. Partner Dessislava Savova leads the tech group in Europe.

“If you think about a cyber attack, it is not going to be restricted to one country. You can’t rely upon a single corridor in a London law firm to help you, you’re going to need a whole lot of different specialists from around the world,” he added.

That concept may even translate into a virtual office for Clifford Chance at some point. “I’m sure that we will have a virtual office in the metaverse at some point. The world of NFTS, blockchain, online payments, virtual interactions is all a huge, exciting area of opportunitybut again, you need to play in that space safely,” he cautioned.

Diversity in tech

The group is also aiming to grow from a grass-roots level with a particular focus on diversity. In 2018, Kewley helped launch Ignite, a training contract open to law and non-law candidates,  focused on legal tech that, in his own words, creates a “different talent stream” of trainees. The non-traditional approach has had the extra advantage of attracting candidates from a more diverse range of backgrounds, he said.

More recently, Kewley helped launch a bursary scheme in partnership with his old Alma Mater, Hertford College, to support young people from underrepresented backgrounds studying computer science. He believes that from the start is vital to combating algorithmic bias and other technological prejudices. 

“A lot of teams developing the technology are white middle class men, and then their views and their bias and prejudice can be built into the algorithms and then we start to see those prejudices magnified in society.

“If we get people from diverse backgrounds developing and facing the technology, then we can fix this from the ground up,” he added.

Kewley eventually hopes that at one point in the future every member of the firm will be part of the tech group, and sees it as pivotal to the future of Clifford Chance.

“Every client that we’re working with is on a tech transformation journey and everybody needs to engage with that. This is about future proofing the business.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *