Ryan Black—In the Spotlight

Practice Point

Ryan Black—In the Spotlight

This month’s spotlight is on longtime CLEBC contributor Ryan Black of McMillan LLP. Ryan practises technology-related business law, and is a member of McMillan’s Technology, Intellectual Property, and Privacy group.

How did you first get involved with CLEBC?

Certainly as a course attendee, where I slowly overcame my imposter syndrome and realized that I had something to contribute as well. The humanizing/connection aspect of CLEBC courses, whether online or in person, really helped me talk to senior practitioners who had a lot to teach (and they would tell me, a lot to learn!) and gain the confidence to contribute back.

What are you currently working on (or have most recently worked on) with CLEBC?

#TechLaw 2019! A five-part series where we’ll tackle everything from the top tech issues for business lawyers, to cannabis and IP, to the latest and greatest technologies like AI, autonomous devices, and blockchain.

Before becoming a lawyer, you were a software and web developer. What inspired your transition?

Ironically, I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer screen programming all day as a coder, so I became a solicitor banging out documents in front of a computer screen for a large part of my career. In all seriousness, I recognized that the things I learned as a coder (logical thinking, error trapping, recursive efficiency, etc.) could also be valuable to my real passions of business, economic development, and entrepreneurialism. While getting my B.Com degree, I took some business law courses where I realized those same processes would be critical to proper contract drafting, and the rest is history.

What are some similarities and differences between working as a developer and working as a lawyer?

As I alluded to, a lot of what I do as a solicitor or negotiator, I view as similar to what I did as a coder. When coding software, you’re trying to (usually) take inputs, run them through some logic, and end up at desired outputs. Along the way, you have to figure out what might go wrong with the inputs, what assumptions you’re making that might turn out untrue, what might change in the environment… all in a goal to make sure that you still end up with the desired outputs. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it should be! That’s really what lawyers do when drafting and negotiating contracts. To really put it in nerd-speak, most contracts are really just a set of instructions (with the business and legal environment as the operating system, operating through the people that run them, through which those instructions will be interpreted and executed) that should logically and functionally execute properly and efficiently when tested against any inputs or changes in conditions.

What are the rewards and challenges of your practice?

Number one reward: I feel very privileged to be in a profession filled with so many bright minds, both at my firm but also in the broader community. I’ve learned so much working opposite to and on the same side as excellent lawyers and judges. I am almost always able to take away something learned and new. Law is so much about experience that it’s critical to success. In terms of challenges, mixing professional responsibility with the realities of a service business would top my list. We have to make sure we’re always adding value when we’re being paid by a client to do something, but it can sometimes be difficult to communicate what is the nature of that value while discharging our professional responsibilities to give reasoned, thoughtful advice.

What key trends are you seeing in technology law?

The major key trend is that increasingly I’m being called in to work on “regular” matters… I’d like to think that my and others’ efforts have been successful in disabusing anyone of the notion that technology issues won’t play a role in a business or contract. Whether it’s a forestry contract, an employment contract, an IT implementation contract, a strategic partnership agreement, or pretty much anything I can think of, there will be technology issues that emerge. Everyone’s going to have to know enough about technology to be competent in their respective industries (for example, please remove “facsimile” from your notice and counterparts provision unless you’re in a very specific industry), and to recognize when it’s time to bring in a pro for technology issues (in the same way we do for tax, competition, securities, etc.).  Also, there seems to be a perception in the business community that when you’re doing something new or new-sounding, the old laws and rules don’t apply, when in fact it’s the exact opposite. Any new technology must be viewed through the lens of existing laws and rules, meaning that good lawyers need to identify an issue as a technology-related legal issue for their clients.

In addition to practising law, you also sit on McMillan’s Information Security Governance Committee, as Chief Technology Partner. How do you think technology is impacting the business of law and the legal industry?

We’re more productive to, and interconnected with, each other and our clients than we ever have been before. With that great power to do amazing work comes some great responsibility too. Human beings have an unprecedented ability to affect other human beings, and the barrier between our individual consciousness/brain and others’ is rapidly deteriorating. It’s amazing that as a lawyer, I can work almost as efficiently from a beach in Maui or outside working hours as I can in the office, and that my clients can tweet or IM me at all hours and vice versa; but, this also means I need to be conscious of the fact that I can add stress (to myself or others) from a beach in Maui or late at night. “Work-life balance” has taken on a lot of baggage over the years, but the kernel of truth that we need to consciously focus on both sides of our life (being responsible professionals as well as good human beings) will always be true.

For lawyers less well-versed in technology and who want to improve their understanding, what resources would you suggest?

The podcast the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and Dr. Steven Novella’s amazing book of the same name (contributed to by his fellow podcast rogues, as they call themselves) would be the best place to start, because I think being able to separate fact from fiction when dealing with technology (or pretty much any issue) is critical to better ingesting. Unlike what our intuition might be, humanity is getting better every single year on almost every observable metric of behaviour. We just need to act upon those improvements instead of our tendency to fall back on fear, flight or fight. Technology is a big part of what is making us all connect as human beings, so understanding it in a fact-based (and skeptical) way is critical to using it to improving our lives.

Other than law, what are you passionate about?

If it hasn’t come through already, I’m a massive nerd, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that gaming (video game and tabletop), comics, and movies would rank highly for me. I’d also probably be reading about, writing about, or discussing technology and intellectual property whether or not I was paid to do so. I love playing and watching basketball (go LA Lakers!), being around my inspiring spouse (Yolanda), and feeling like a kid with my twin brother Tyler (and no, I can’t read his mind).