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An Unusual Path Toward Becoming a Tech Attorney

18 July 2016
Legaltech News

Julian Dibbell channeled decades of accruing tech expertise into a second career as an associate at Mayer Brown.

While many encounter that moment late in the game where they feel the need for a career change, few actually put wishes into action.

Among those few is Julian Dibbell, an associate who, prior to joining Mayer Brown's business and technology sourcing practice in 2014, had spent nearly two decades writing about technology for the likes of the New York Times Magazine, Wired, and the Village Voice. In fact, "the main motivator" for his "transition to law" was that his technology coverage "had always attracted a lot of interest from legal scholars, and had often involved legal questions, whether it was stories about internet and phone hackers, cryptographers, [or] online communities with governance issues," Dibbell explained.

His topics of coverage, he noted, "raised all these questions about, 'How does this new technology challenge the law, and how we govern human behavior in society?'"

Dibbell's writing led to "lots of interactions" with lawyers and legal academics. Of law, he said, "It was always kind of there in the background of what I was writing about."

In his role with Mayer Brown, Dibbell represents clients on issues around data privacy, cybersecurity and cloud services deals. A major part of his work is around "ownership and protection of data."

Among the tech concerns Dibbell is seeing in his associate role are issues around the Internet of Things (IoT), such as how to manage data when it's embedded, how to manage technologies "that go out there into the world and are owned by consumers" like mobile devices, and "the data that's in the objects out there being transacted." He added that "artificial intelligence is definitely up on the radar."

"Service providers are starting to sell artificial intelligence and machine learning as a product. So what happens when you have this machine-learning service that's learning your processes, and what rights does the provider have to what the artificial intelligence has learned about your business production and intelligence?" he added.

Recently, Dibbell published a piece in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law around online "gold farming" among workers mostly in China, a practice in which workers are paid for playing multiplayer online games, rewarding them with virtual items that their employers sell for actual profits to players. This practice brings about a host of issues regarding law, such as the status of virtual items as property, as well as tax questions about whether you should report earnings to the IRS, he explained.

"It's an example of the same kinds of problems related to data control that come up all over the commercial space right now and create all kinds of work for us," he added.

As to whether he believes it's important for lawyers to be versed in technology, he explained that for those interested in working on new problems, "technology now, by far, is the real powerhouse in terms of generating these new questions."

As an example of an issue at the overlap of law and tech, he noted the privacy and liability issues surrounding the smartphone game Pokémon Go: "You wouldn't have been ready to ask and think about those questions unless you already had been paying attention to what's going on in this space."

In Dibbell's view, technology is impacting law in the same ways it has "disintermediated so many other spaces," such as shopping (eBay) and transportation (Uber). It's a "matter of understanding how people live their lives these days, in the ways their lives are completely mediated" by new technology.

While Dibbell's previous career as a journalist has exposed him to more "hype cycles" and rendered him "more measured in panic" with regard to advancing technologies like AI than lawyers often are, he warned attorneys not to get too comfortable in the changing world.

"You're a fool if you think everything we're doing now is going to be something that people will pay people for and not machines to do in the very near future," he said. "The trick is to figure out how to find new things to do that will keep us in work, and also to figure out how to use the new machinery to make yourself more valuable still."

Reprinted with permission from the July 18, 2016 edition of LegalTech News © 2016 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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