A decade ago, Carlos Vela-Treviño stepped into a legal firm, about to start a job as a young IT lawyer in Mexico. His colleagues were welcoming, yet ill-informed.
“They thought I was a computer technician; someone who does repairs”, Vela-Treviño, now a partner at Baker McKenzie, said in an interview with NSAM. “There was little knowledge of tech being an actual field handled in legal practice”.
Perceptions among Mexico’s law professionals have certainly changed since then, but not entirely. For Vela-Treviño, something as innocuous as attending a school reunion can make him feel as the odd man out in a room filled with people who are, in theory, his peers. Questions about what it is that he actually does are common, as well as unsuccessful attempts at grasping the span and complexity of his practice. Being an IT-specialized lawyer in Mexico is still, for the most part, a solitary pursuit.
“There is a certain loneliness”, Vela-Treviño conceded. “Even in big law firms, for the longest time, the word ‘tech’ was never used to describe legal practice. You see it now, but it began to be used about three or four years ago, perhaps”.
Vela-Treviño is not alone in his loneliness. IT lawyers in Mexico and other Latin American countries find themselves to be a small tribe. Even though the tech industry has for years been growing at a vertiginous pace in the region, attorneys with an understanding of its ins and outs remain scarce.
“We do feel lonely”, said Natalia Ospina, Law Director at Colombian firm AbogadosTIC. “And it’s not because they hardly understand us during negotiations, but because those colleagues that have decided to specialize on IT topics are rarely incorporated into the market”.
Most self-respecting law firms in Latin America have at least one IT-specialized lawyer among their partners. Nevertheless, among Latin American legal professionals, the IT field rarely includes what the general public understands as “tech”.
For most firms and businesses in the region, an IT lawyer deals with topics related to telecommunications; from infrastructure and broadcasting rights to intellectual property and frequency bands.
This is explained in part by market history. Telecom companies have positioned themselves among the top players in the region’s overall industry, making it necessary –and appealing– for legal practice to follow closely. (An enlightening fact: Latin America’s richest man, Carlos Slim, joined the ranks of the ultrawealthy by becoming a telecommunications tycoon.)
“There is a certain loneliness. Even in big law firms, for the longest time, the word ‘tech’ was never used to describe legal practice”—Carlos Vela-Treviño, Partner and Head of Telecom, Media and Tech at Baker McKenzie Mexico
Incidentally, companies’ understanding of the law’s IT practice has been skewed, generating ripples in the decisions of legal professionals across the region.
“Companies don’t understand the need for IT specialization, thus they see no reason to hire lawyers specialized in the topic”, explained Ospina. “There are very few colleagues dedicated to those issues because there are very few companies actually soliciting their services.”
For IT lawyers themselves, the landscape translates into something more than professional solitude. Practicing their specialty can be frustrating or, in some cases, outright cumbersome.
Dealing with It
For IT lawyers, the problems that come with being a small group extend beyond mere solitude. Having to deal with colleagues who have little to no knowledge of tech matters can distend contract negotiations to unbearable lengths.
“It’s common for contract negotiations to run longer than needed due to a lack of understanding about IT topics”, explained Ospina. “Explanations take time, and the documentation back-and-forth sometimes feels neverending”.
Although no attorney dominates every topic he/she has to deal with, tech seems to be a particularly troublesome topic to face. Lawyers who find themselves negotiating a tech contract without being familiar with the nuances involved can feel like they’re fighting at a disadvantage, explained Vela-Treviño.
The scene has become commonplace in the negotiation of cloud contracts.
“Companies that sold cloud services generally had issues with lawyers on the opposite side of the aisle who did not understand the model of cloud services”, Vela-Treviño pointed out.
“It’s common for contract negotiations to run longer than needed due to a lack of understanding about IT topics”—Natalia Ospina, Manager and Director at AbogadosTIC.
Considering that the cloud services market is expected to surpass the US$590 billion mark in 2023, the current situation could spell trouble for contract negotiations and cloud projects themselves. As long as negotiations remain stuck, cloud engineers are unable to implement projects, having to work under a start-and-pause flow which hampers the quality of the end product.
Spreading the Wealth (of Knowledge)
Faced with a lack of understanding from their counterparts, IT lawyers have been forced to undertake strategies that, by the standards of any other legal practice, would be considered unorthodox or even counterproductive.
According to Vela-Treviño, tech attorneys in Mexico usually find themselves explaining concepts to their counterparts in the negotiating table. The situation is so common that he and a group of colleagues decided to launch crash courses directed to the Mexican “legal community”.
“It might seem absurd to qualify potential counterparts, yet, in the end, it was understood that if these lawyers understood the model, they could make more accurate observations. That would ultimately accelerate negotiations, which would in turn accelerate sales”, he explained.
A similar situation is happening in Colombia. Ospina and other partners at AbogadosTIC are no strangers to playing teacher in the middle of a negotiation.
“In negotiations, we usually have to explain to our colleagues the reach of specific legal concepts and how they affect tech contracts”, she said. “We have to explain the application of intellectual property; how software is sold or distributed; how the tech business itself works”.
But IT lawyers can’t let their hours drift away in explaining concepts that they consider basic for any tech contract, Opsina argued. That’s why her firm is working on what it calls “legal design”, an initiative which aims to translate tech contracts and other legal documents into a language that is simple enough for anyone to handle.
Back in Mexico, Vela-Treviño sees a solution that is both simple and complicated: education. Schools have to produce more IT lawyers to meet the demand, a circumstance which mirrors the tech industry’s own knowledge woes.
The road is long and rough to travel, though. IT-specialized attorneys have to be well acquainted with a wide array of topics: hardware, software, connectivity, data protection, privacy, intellectual property, e-commerce, digital marketing, telecommunications and web infrastructure, just to name a few.
“That’s when I realize that we are not creating [in schools] professionals with a solid base made up of all the different areas that an IT specialty would entail”, Vela-Treviño commented.
In spite of the difficult road ahead, Vela-Treviño trusts that, in time, the tribe of IT lawyers will grow to acceptable numbers. There’s little interest at a college-level, where most students are attracted to the flames of more lucrative practice, such as finance. Nevertheless, masters students are showing more interest in IT topics.
“It’s been a slow process for the practice to become standardized and for there to be an understanding of the affairs it deals with”, he said. “What’s also helped is the growth in the professional reputation of people who handle at least one of these verticals; that has brought certain levels of respectability”.
As the tech sector grows in Latin America, and with it the reputation of attorneys who are knee-deep in it, the field will probably shine with brighter colors in the eyes of prospects.