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Legal land of opportunity

Paul Haswell, partner at Pinsent Masons, is looking to lasso TMT lawyers to lead the way in law’s ‘Wild West’

Like sheriffs sent to bring order to unruly frontier towns, lawyers covering issues such as privacy and ownership in computer technology are entering uncharted territory. “Being a TMT [telecoms, media and technology] lawyer is a bit like being in the Wild West … with you trying to lead the way for other areas of the law,” says Paul Haswell, partner in the Hong Kong office of international law firm Pinsent Masons. 

“The law is always a few years behind technological advances,” says Haswell, who has responsibility for TMT cases across Asia. [For example] copyright law still hasn’t caught up with the fact that people are able to download music and share files on the internet – and, let’s be honest, it has been over 10 years since that particular bombshell dropped.

“The world is still very much reeling from the Snowdon allegations/disclosures; a lot of countries are now looking at how they can use the law to protect their own data, their citizens’ data and their state secrets. We’re entering a new era of data sovereignty when the law has not yet got to grips with the free movement of data.”

The pervasiveness of digital technology in the modern world means Haswell gets drawn into cases from a wide range of industries which involve employment law, data protection law and banking law. “Every day, I get asked a question about something completely different. You do have to learn on the job but, personally, if the pace wasn’t so relentless, I’d probably get bored,” he says.

Digitalisation has transformed the working lives of all lawyers, he points out. “Years ago, when you went to court, evidence was most likely purely in paper form: letters, documents and so on. Now, everything is electronic. 

“Evidence stems from emails, text messages and instant messenger programs such as WhatsApp. I’m looking at whether we can use the content of someone’s Facebook message account, or their iPad, when fighting a case. This means the volume of information we have to process as lawyers has increased a thousand-fold. It’s not uncommon to be faced with gigabytes or terabytes of material.”

Technology does, though, help to process this information. “As a trainee solicitor preparing a case back in 2000, I was required to sit in a room surrounded by lever arch files, poring over them for hundreds of hours and indexing them by hand. Now we use software to take a first look at the documentation, index it, and let lawyers focus on what is relevant.” 

Haswell, who also looks after the recruitment of trainee solicitors for Pinsent Masons in Hong Kong, has some words of advice for law students seeking to join the firm. “To be a lawyer in any field, you need to be a very good critical thinker, willing to put in the hours and able to think on your feet. In addition, to succeed in TMT, you need a genuine enthusiasm for new technology and the way that technology works both in practice and legally.”

However, he warns applicants to be careful of what they share online. “If someone sends me a job application, the first thing I will do is Google them and look for them on Facebook.” 

If candidates want to stand out from the crowd, they should avoid a cookie-cutter approach to CV writing. “There seems to be an assumption that lawyers should have no personality and no interests. Too many applicants have all seemingly got the same degree, and all seemingly have the same interests – piano and badminton, for some reason. 

“If you apply to work with me then good academics are a given. I want to know what makes you different. If I am stuck in the office with you all night, then I want to ensure that you at least have a personality.” 

Haswell says job candidates should take the time and effort to get their applications in good shape. “There aren’t very many TMT lawyers in Hong Kong. We’re always on the lookout for TMT lawyers and as technology becomes ever more pervasive, there is a good chance you will do well in any field.”

“I’ve been working as a TMT lawyer for over 12 years and many people I’ve worked with now work at some of the really big tech giants like Google, Facebook or Microsoft. Some have joined banks and corporates looking after the IT law challenges of those organisations. Others have used their knowledge of TMT law as a springboard for launching their own businesses, developing apps, software and hardware.