Can Attorneys and Technology Professionals Work Together?

Posted on by Stephen Wu

Last week, I attended a terrific conference for attorneys in San Francisco.  For a while, I was steeped in the interesting legal educational content of the program, but once I left the conference, I returned to the world in which I usually dwell -- the intersection between law and technology.  I realize that a wide gulf remains between attorneys and technology professionals -- one that has persisted throughout the last 13 years. 

When I started my legal career in 1988, my perception was that technology professionals played a role only as experts and people to support the litigation process from time to time.  But I did not see them very frequently, and  I did not see them as an essential part of a wide swath of litigation tasks, or as educators who could help me do my job better.  Perhaps my perceptions arise from my experiences as an attorney in large law firms in the East, not in the Silicon Valley. 

Once I joined VeriSign in January 1997, however, the world seemed different.  I began learning infosec technologies, on a daily basis, from the people who invented it, or at least managed it on the cutting edge.  Their insights greatly improved my skills and abilities to help my clients, and I am grateful for their instruction.  I started attending the RSA Conference, and learned an enormous amount.  And I joined the American Bar Association Section of Science and Technology Law, which provides a forum to bridge the gap between lawyers and technology professionals.  In 1997, during SciTech meetings, we wondered whether the legal profession could reach out to technologists, come to a deep understanding of technology, and better serve our clients.  We also wondered whether technologists would, over time, have a better appreciation of the legal profession and legal matters.  The hope was that technologists would plan their legal strategies better to prevent legal problems from arising. 

Thirteen years later, I fear that the gulf remains about as wide as I recall it in 1997.  While information technology has given us more lawyers using computers, portable devices, and the like during our practices, I don't perceive a large percentage of the legal profession gaining a deep understanding of technology as it relates to the business of our clients or the practice of law.  And change is indeed coming.  I hope that the advance of technology does not overwhelm the profession.

On the other side, it seems that technology professionals are continuing to get into trouble for failing to account for legal matters in their deals.  I read a recent story on the San Jose Mercury News about the dispute between TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington and the developers of the JooJoo tablet computer.  Click here for the story.  The facts are in dispute, but suffice it to say that Arrington and the developers worked together on developing the JooJoo, but their agreement on who owns what rights was limited to some verbal discussions and some emails, rather than a formal agreement written by lawyers.  After the parties had a falling out, Arrington's lawyers filed a suit against the developers for continuing with the project without including him.  It is unfortunate that the legal wrangling may prevent rollout of the JooJoo and cost the parties an enormous sum of money for litigation, when they could have prevented all of these problems and saved an enormous amount of money by hiring lawyers to work out a definitive agreement.

My hope is that the legal profession will become a lot more tech-savvy over time, and our technology professionals will become a lot more savvy on legal issues.  In order to get to that point, attorneys will need to reach out and work together with technology professionals and vice versa.  Only with strong cooperation can we serve our employers effectively.  The ABA Section of Science and Technology Law provides one place where lawyers and technologists come together to learn from each other, and overcome the communications gap.  Please contact me if you see this challenge too, and want to talk about ways to solve it. 

Stephen Wu

Partner, Cooke Kobrick & Wu LLP

(650) 917-8045

Stephen Wu

Shareholder, Silicon Valley Law Group

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