Interview with Natasha Blycha, head of digital law at Herbert Smith Freehills

As Head of digital law at Herbert Smith Freehills, Natasha Blycha leads a global team of digital lawyers who help clients tackle the legal challenges of digital technology. As founder of the Digital Law Association, she’s a passionate advocate for more inclusive and democratic voices in topics at the intersection of law and technology.

We spoke with Natasha to learn more about her work, and hear her views on how the role and work of lawyers will change in a digital age.

When did you find your career calling in the digital law space?

I started out as a competition corporate lawyer, a federal court associate, and did all those ‘traditional’ and very normal lawyer things. When I had children and they were very little, I decided to take time off and travel the world. While I was watching my kids, I could often be found sitting on the edge of a sandpit with a book or later a smart phone in my hand, reading about things like smart contracts, quantum physics and algorithms. I guess this was the start of how I found myself in the digital law space. 

When I walked back into practice ten years later, I was really surprised. I could see that the world was changing around me and I had imagined that the practice of law would also have changed a lot as well. In truth, we were still doing many of the same things we’d been doing when I left. 

Today, Natasha leads a team of ~60 digital lawyers at Herbert Smith Freehills.

Today, Natasha leads a team of ~60 digital lawyers at Herbert Smith Freehills.

The experience was a catalyst for me, and I decided that this area of law was one that I could be passionate about, and spend my career in, and that’s how I started my career path in digital law.

You’re the global head of digital law at Herbert Smith Freehills, tell us about your team.

The Digital Law Group is a horizontal practice area across 16 offices, with around 50-60 lawyers in the team, a mix of permanent members and secondees. We’ve set it up this way because if the law of the future is changing then we’ve got to make sure we have people across our entire global network who can think differently.

When people work in the digital law team, at the end of their secondments they go back out to their home practice groups and they’re able to “speak” digital law more competently, be more up to date, and advise our clients on what’s ahead. So for example, if you’re a banking client with a digital project, we would be able to provide a digital lawyer who’s also a banking lawyer.

“The average in-house legal counsel is facing fundamental challenges on how they’ll run their departments, because many businesses are undergoing major digitisation and transformation programs. We need digital lawyers to provide strategic and informed advice to boards.”
– Natasha Blycha, Global Head of Digital Law at Herbert Smith Freehills

What’s the difference between a traditional lawyer and a digital lawyer?

The main difference between a traditional lawyer and a digital lawyer is the ability to work with coded instructions. It’s the ability to understand there’s a logic-based process happening behind what you’re delivering. 

The average in-house legal counsel is facing fundamental challenges on how they’ll run their departments going forward, because many businesses are undergoing major digitisation and transformation programs. We need digital lawyers to provide strategic and informed advice to boards.

You’re a subject matter expert in smart legal contracts. Can you explain what they are and how they are different to smart contracts?

At the moment, a contract is a static piece of paper that doesn’t do anything of its own volition. 

Some people use ‘smart legal contract’ and ‘smart contract’ interchangeably, however in my book a smart contract could just mean self-executing code, it isn’t necessarily legally binding. 

A smart legal contract is a legal contract that has code embedded in that contract, or automations that assist the contract to perform those coded actions post-execution. 

You could say it’s a contract where somebody has placed a digital executive assistant inside the contract. That digital executive assistant can perform tasks contained in the contract, and has a perfect memory of all the tasks that have been performed in that contract. If, as a client, you can listen to all of those digital assistants in those contracts and see all those contracts en masse, you’ll get a lot of really useful information about your business.

What do we need to make smart legal contracts as normal and mainstream as regular contracts?

If you create anything for lawyers, you need to have products that lawyers aren’t scared to use, and keep the legal certainty of the document. So the first thing needed is to ensure the applications of smart legal contracts are adoptable in real life.

The second is cybersecurity and privacy. Moving contracts from pieces of paper to software has huge implications. If we take contracts and we put them in a digitized form, we need to be very confident that the type of infrastructure we run those contracts on is not somebody’s honey pot of data.

 

“At the end of the day, we need to make sure we don't ruin contracts by making them digital ... we want to get all the efficiencies, but without taking away their inherent importance in society.”
– Natasha Blycha, Global Head of Digital Law at Herbert Smith Freehills

Another consideration is natural language processing abilities. Humans don’t tend to ‘speak machine’ very well, and machines don’t tend to ‘read humans’ with the levels of complexity we expect from other humans. 

At the end of the day, we need to make sure we don’t ruin contracts by making them digital. For me it’s a simplistic motivation: we want to get all the efficiencies, but without taking away their inherent importance in society.

How will legaltech, like Josef, shape the way lawyers work and the type of work they do? 

At its core, I think what Josef does and what it’s doing is inevitable.

Lawyers do a lot of inefficient reporting work, because individuals hold certain knowledge about what’s happening with a client, or they have specific knowledge about a big matter or piece of past litigation. Once these kinds of data are in machine-readable formats, we’re going to see very fundamental changes and the role of lawyers will have to be different. 

Where do you sit on the code or no code debate? What skills do you think lawyers will need ten years from now?

I don’t think in ten years lawyers will need to code, or to learn to code. There will be a transition period in the next two to four years, where lawyers with coding, high-tech and programming skills will be in demand. We also need to be up to speed on the legal ramifications of digitisation, for example in respect of privacy, cybersecurity and the role of platforms, 

We need highly creative, empathetic people who can understand others and connect dots in a way that machines can’t. We need more lawyers who can understand other people, understand their problems in a non-literal way, and make others feel good in the room.

We’re big fans of the Digital Law Association, which you’ve been involved in as a founder. How has it been going since it launched late last year? 

It’s going really well! We’ve grown to a few thousand members; amazing women and men across the world who want to contribute at the intersection of technology and law. 

The Digital Law Association is a global initiative that promotes a fairer, more inclusive and democratic voice at the intersection of law and technology.

We’ve published a submission on AI for children, and we’re working on other topics like smart contracts for the UK Law Commission, and policy guidelines for satellites in space. We’re also planning our first big presentation on surveillance, to help promote a balanced discussion around the legal issues that arise when platforms collect data and promote certain behaviours.

It really makes me so proud that we can allow the female voice to be heard on important legal and technology topics, and in a way where people can do a little piece rather than committing their entire lives to it. 

Phew! What do you do to relax and take a break from these big issues and topics? 

I’ve got a full plate between work and my four kids, so I find time every morning to read and go for a run. I also prioritise to make sure I spend time with friends – I’m old enough to know that I will not survive without other people.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading The Essential Difference: Men Women and the Extreme Brain by Simon Baron-Cohen. 

There’s a concept in neuroscience that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. I usually have multiple books on the go at the same time, and believe it helps to connect and ‘wire’ different pieces of information to create a resilient, future-proofed brain.

Natasha's reading list: The Essential Difference: Men Women and the Extreme Brain (Simon Baron-Cohen), The Fifth Season (N.K Jamisin), If Then (Jill Lepore), The Trauma Cleaner (Sarah Krasnostein), Call of the Reed Warbler (Charles Massy), Making Sense of God (Timothy Keller), Piranesi (Susanna Clarke), and A Life on Our Planet (David Attenborough).

Natasha's reading list: The Essential Difference: Men Women and the Extreme Brain (Simon Baron-Cohen), The Fifth Season (N.K Jamisin), If Then (Jill Lepore), The Trauma Cleaner (Sarah Krasnostein), Call of the Reed Warbler (Charles Massy), Making Sense of God (Timothy Keller), Piranesi (Susanna Clarke), and A Life on Our Planet (David Attenborough).

Natasha, thanks so much. Did you have any final thoughts or reflections to add?

There needs to be a change in the way we practice law, so that we look after and care for our people. 

We need to look after young people who go into the law. We need to push women to come back to the law, particularly if they’ve had children. Unlike medicine and many other professions, women aren’t coming back, or coming back in less strategic roles because it can become too much, too hard, and it’s so easy to lose your confidence. So I’d like to see more balance and I’d like to have men and women leading together.

 

For more information on the Digital Law Association, please visit: https://digitallawassociation.com/

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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