Anthony Brown: [00:00:00] Hello there, I'm Anthony Brown and I'm very pleased to welcome you to another episode of the Privacy and Data Talks podcast, aka the Podcast. So far in series three, I've met a variety of leading privacy professionals to discuss their careers and journeys through privacy. This week's episode will be no different, as I'm delighted to welcome Phil Lee to the podcast so we can discuss his stellar career in detail and learn about some of his experiences along the way, both the good and bad. I'm sure many of you will be familiar with Phil, as he's widely regarded as one of the UK and Europe's leading privacy lawyers, and has spent over ten years as a partner in Fieldfisher's Tier1 privacy team. More recently, however, Phil left Big Law to set up his own challenger law firm, Digiphile. Phil, thanks very much for joining us today and very well. Warm welcome to the podcast.
Phil Lee: [00:01:13] Thank you. Thank you for having me here. I'm delighted to be speaking with you today, Anthony.
Anthony Brown: [00:01:17] Yes, very much so. And I've got to actually, I'll just sneak this anecdote now just straight away for our, our listeners and viewers. Phil just told me that he's hoping this session goes better than I think, a live TV appearance he had a few years ago. Phil, can you just very briefly tell our listeners what happened?
Phil Lee: [00:01:38] Sure, sure. It was actually it was a radio appearance and it was while I was working in the States, but I had been asked to be part of a live radio broadcast where they were discussing the GDPR and and all of its implications. And I was I was doing the interview by phone. So the radio station had called me at home and I was taking the the call at the top of on my mobile, at the top of the stairs in our house, which was where we got the best signal. And unbeknownst to me, as I was taking the call, my son was in the bathroom. And so we just got to the point in the radio broadcast where they said, and now we're introducing our expert for the day, Phil Lee. And at precisely that moment, my son flushed the toilet! And so all that you could hear on air was the sound of this flushing toilet, which wasn't my proudest, my proudest professional moment. But, you know, kids.
Anthony Brown: [00:02:28] Yeah, kids. What can go wrong when they're around. But no, I love I love that one. Hopefully, hopefully we'll get away with it today. Although you have pre-warn me that you do have dogs and in approximately 25 minutes we may hear them, but anyway, we'll persevere. Um, so I'm showing my age a bit here, Phil, and maybe giving yours away a little bit as well. But we actually, when I was thinking about this the other day, you know, ahead of our recording, I realized that we've actually known each other since 2005. And I think at that time I actually approached you about a role at Google when they not long landed in London, and I was doing some work with them to sort of help set up their legal team in London. So, I mean, the days when legal Google had just landed, it's quite crazy to think that that day ever existed, I suppose. But but anyway, here we are nearly 20 years later, and you've founded your own specialist law firm, Digiphile. So I mean, suffice it to say, it's been a pretty successful couple of decades, and I know our listeners are going to be intrigued to hear about Digiphile Phil, and we're absolutely going to come on to this. But if you don't mind, can we just take you back a few years to when you were a trainee, you were at Denton Wilde Sapte, now more commonly known as as Dentons? Well, firstly, what made you choose a career in law?
Phil Lee: [00:03:57] Oh, it's a very it's a very winding, winding story. I think. But I'll try and give you the reasonably condensed version I was. So I was studying computer science at university and I was, you know, I was enjoying computing a lot, but I sort of quickly realized about a year or so into my degree that I didn't really want to spend the rest of my life programming. So I love technology, but I didn't love programming, and I sort of at the end of my second year, I actually did a summer camp working in the States, and it was my first time traveling there. But I worked on a summer camp just outside Washington, DC, and I was teaching kids programming, and so it was a combined technology and sports camp. And and it was a day camp. And so I was living with an American family, and both parents and the family were lawyers, and they used to drive me to and from the camp every morning. And in the journeys in, as I was having all these doubts about, you know, kind of what I wanted to do for.
Phil Lee: [00:05:00] For a living. The father who would take me to him from the camp, was telling me about the antitrust cases he was working on. And one of them I remember because it was to do with price fixing in the double glazing market. And as he used to explain this case to me, I, I just found myself sort of, you know, really riveted by the details he was giving. And I think I had this sort of moment of realization that if I could find price fixing and double glazing, which are arguably two of the most boring topics you could, you could cover. Interesting that maybe law was the was the right career for me. So I finished up my time at the camp. I came back to university and then spent a lot of my third year trying to apply for various training contracts with different law firms, getting rejected by everybody I approached, with the exception of Wilde Sapte as it was then, and so I got invited for an interview, was accepted onto a training contract, and that was sort of how it all began.
Anthony Brown: [00:05:59] Amazing, amazing. So very early on, you were inspired by people that you'd, you know, crossed paths with out. Are you still in contact with those people, by the way? That.
Phil Lee: [00:06:12] Yeah I am it's amazing. They I mean, the two lawyers are now retired, but when I was there, they, you know, they had young children. Their young children are now sort of, you know, late 20s, early 30s. They've gotten married, you know, it's it's it was a long time ago, but but no, we've we've kept up that contact because for me, it was a real sort of sliding doors moment. I think it was one of the few points in my life I can really point to where I can say I went down a completely different path from the one that I'd I'd anticipated for myself up until that point.
Anthony Brown: [00:06:44] Brilliant. I'm sure there are extremely proud to have been part of your journey and to see what's happened since. So so fair play to well, SAP's now Dentons for seeing the potential in you. So what was your very early sort of legal career looking like when you were training and then sort of early qualification, was it were you was there any element in those days of data protection, privacy, albeit it was a very different time in that sort of stratosphere or what were you sort of involved in?
Phil Lee: [00:07:12] So originally, you know, I worked in well, it became Denton Wild SAP very quickly, just before or after I joined them, and they had the leading TMT practice in the country at the time. So it was quite an exciting team to be part of. And there was a lot of trainees and I qualified actually into into telecoms regulation team. At the time it was a communication act. That was all the big thing, and I'd only been sort of qualified for a few weeks. And then DLA did a big recruitment swoop on Dentons and hired about two thirds of the department. And and of all the trainees that are qualified, I think there were seven that had qualified into the department. I was the only one that remained. And I would love to tell you it was a great act of loyalty on my part. It actually wasn't. I was never asked to join DLA, so so that that was the reason. I'm not sure how the other six got the invite and didn't, but um, probably should take offense to that. But but anyway, so so I stayed behind and honestly, at the time it felt like a tragedy, but sort of with reflection, it was probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me career wise, because I'm moved, you know, I had to pick up a very broad variety of work. I went from being just a very specialist telecoms regulatory lawyer to having to pick up everything, which included sort of IP tech transactions and of course, data privacy. And it just so happened that I ended up sharing a room with Nick Graham, who is a, you know, a titan amongst data privacy professionals.
Phil Lee: [00:08:44] And, yeah, one of the originals, you know, very understated lawyer, but but quite brilliant and you know, so I picked up bits and pieces from him and. Yeah, absolutely. You know back then data privacy was, you know, was was really a very small part of our workload. You know, it was maybe 10% of what I did. And it was one of those areas that was a bit like sort of tacks that people had a bit of an allergic reaction to. They tried to keep as far away from as possible. It was seen as very confusing, very difficult, and and I never felt that way about it. I think partly because I got the background in technology anyway. And actually my dad was a database programmer, so I'd always been brought up around data and databases, and so a lot of what was being discussed was just things that felt very natural and obvious to me. And, you know, if I'm brutally honest as well, I it appealed to me as an area of law because I would see people doing corporate transactions or litigation and they'd be working round the clock, stupendous hours and and data privacy, at least back then, wasn't like that. So I thought, you know, here's a here's an area of law I understand the, you know, the work life balance isn't that bad. I can keep this up. I really have no idea what was in store for me a decade later.
Speaker3: [00:09:59] Fuck yeah.
Phil Lee: [00:10:01] That was how it sort of began.
Anthony Brown: [00:10:02] Fantastic. So, so in this, you know, the current environment where there's, you know, AI involved and obviously there's been privacy moved on so much. Do you remember the sort of matters you might have been dealing with back then?
Phil Lee: [00:10:16] Well, a lot of it at the time. Denton's had a very big public sector outsourcing practice, and so a lot of my work was was on these sort of big public sector deals where I would, you know, be working on, you know, maybe sort of the IP and data privacy clauses of contracts, or we'd have the occasional kind of technology startup that would come to us and they would, you know, it was mostly privacy notices. They would come to us and say, we want a privacy notice. And the kind of conversation you would have with a client back then would be to say things like, well, okay, you know, what data are you collecting? What are you using it for? And the response was very much, look, I don't care about any of that. I just want a notice. You know, just draft me something. We'll stick it on our website. And so, you know, you very often ended up drafting the same kinds of notices over and over and over and over and over again with very little tailoring for, for clients. And you would send them out with sort of due warnings to the clients that, you know, they need to reflect, you know, they need to check that it reflects what they're actually doing, tailor it as necessary.
Phil Lee: [00:11:15] But, you know, half the time they didn't. And it would just go up on the website and actually have one recollection of a Premier League football club. This wasn't specifically data privacy, but was a draft of some terms for where I'd left drafting notes in the document, you know, like square brackets highlighted, you know, questions for them. And they put it obviously never read the thing because they put it straight up on their website with all the questions and highlighting intact. Um, but I think that was a lot of the attitude back then. And I suppose it's both, you know, it is pleasing to see that we've moved on a lot from then and actually, you know, now when do privacy notices for clients, you know, they tend to pore over the detail over them. The language is reviewed very carefully. There's a lot of careful examination about whether it's actually accurately describing the data that's being used. You know, how the data is being processed, whether it's covered off all the data subject rights. So it's a world apart now from what it was back then. But early days were very simple, very simple instructions.
Anthony Brown: [00:12:14] Yeah. And I mean, when you describe it in such a way, I mean, it's quite amazing that you kind of decided that you'd found your space and you wanted to continue with it. And, you know, as it was fairly basic work in hindsight, of course, I'm sure it didn't feel like it at the time.
Phil Lee: [00:12:33] Well, yeah. And, you know, one of the things that really appealed to me when I sort of got into it, aside from the fact that it sort of just felt a bit more natural than other areas of law, was I sort of, you know, maybe watched Erin Brockovich or something and decided that what I wanted to do was some area of law where I could, you know, um, bring some kind of benefit to the world. But also, you know, I'm a bit of a domestic animal. I do like my creature comforts. And so, you know, working in data privacy was a was a nice area where it felt you could be working in a human rights space, but actually, you know, still earn a sort of earn a decent living. And so it kind of, you know, ticked two boxes really in that way so that that, you know, that appealed to me as well. And actually, I was just going to say one other one of the great example of the early days as well, that I do remember was, um, drafting a my first ever marketing consent for a client as well, where we did a technology client that's no longer in existence, but we drafted this, sort of this, this opt out box of the website. And, you know, I was a very junior lawyer at the time.
Phil Lee: [00:13:34] I was very crafted the language very carefully. You know, if you no longer wish to receive marketing communications from us, you can opt out by clicking here. And the client went ahead and implemented it. And I remember feeling this enormous sense of pride of actually going to their website and seeing my language up on their website. And then about two weeks later, we got a really angry complaint from a data subject who, you know, who said that they were still receiving marketing despite having opted out. And, you know, we spoke to the client and we said, well, you know, we don't understand it. We gave you this language and you know what's going on anyway, when they investigated, what they discovered was they put the language up on the website, but they basically hadn't hooked it up to any marketing system. So people were actually checking the box to opt out, and it was entirely being ignored. You know, that instruction was going nowhere. But again, it's a very good, um, I suppose, indication of what it was like in the early days. The thinking was very much as long as we've got the language, we've ticked the compliance box. It's very different to now where there's a lot more emphasis put into investigation and implementation.
Anthony Brown: [00:14:33] Indeed, indeed. And you so you obviously work with Nick Graham and you stuck around for, for quite a bit longer, um, at Dentons. And then you moved on to Osborne Clarke and we discussed the other day, I think you, you were involved quite, quite a lot in video games around that sort of time. So you spent a good sort of three or so years at Osborne Clarke. So did that, did that sort of thread of privacy continue when you moved on there or.
Phil Lee: [00:15:03] It did. I think actually it was probably really the, the making of me as a, as a privacy lawyer in some ways. Because, you know, when I had worked at Dentons, you know, you always had this kind of big comfort blanket. You know, whatever advice you did would get checked by Nick and you knew if you made a mistake that Nick would be there to correct it for you. Whereas when I went to Osborne Clarke, you know, there was less of that comfort blanket. And so there was also a lot of responsibility delegated to lawyers at a mid level of their career, you know, more so than Dentons did. And so I think in my sort of first week there, we had a meeting with a big video games client. And, you know, my boss at the time said, oh, you know, they want to speak about data privacy. And I was like, okay, great. You know, we're going down to the meeting together. And he said, no, no, you're going to do it on your own. And I remember walking to that meeting sort of absolutely terrified, realizing it was the first time I was going to kind of fly completely solo and take instructions and give advice without, you know, without somebody looking over my shoulder and making sure that I stayed on course.
Phil Lee: [00:16:03] And, you know, it was terrifying. But when you are put on the spot like that, you make sure you know your stuff that much more carefully than when you know you've got somebody sort of constantly checking what you do. Um, and so, you know, I moved to Osborne Clarke because I was interested in working in the video game space. And, uh, and a lot of, you know, a lot of games, clients obviously collecting lots of amounts of player data. But I was also doing more traditional licensing kinds of things as well. But over time, you know, the games industry, you know, the publishers had got bigger. They built up, they bought up all the developers, and they develop these very large in-house legal teams that did all the routine licensing stuff that I was doing. But the things that they couldn't do was the specialist regulatory pieces. So data privacy just kept coming out as an area of work. And so I went from sort of being, I suppose, a, you know, a video games lawyer who did a bit of data protection to becoming a data protection specialist for video games companies, to just becoming a data protection specialist for all and everyone. Mm.
Anthony Brown: [00:16:59] Excellent. So I guess there's a lesson there for, for people listening who perhaps at the beginning of their journeys that actually, you know, you you mustn't kind of underestimate going to perhaps a smaller or boutique firm. You know, people can get obsessed with the bright lights of some of the, you know, the larger firms, but actually you're going to get greater exposure much more quickly in your career if you, you land somewhere of the ilk, as you did at that time of Osborne Clarke. So, um, yeah, I must point out that it's not specifically Osborne Clarke. There's lots of law firms out there that I'm sure do the exactly the same. So for anyone listening, but, um, okay. Cool. So so you had a really good, uh, I think another 3 or 4 years there and then. Wow. I mean, in hindsight, this must have been a big, uh, well, a huge turning point for you in your career or a big move. You you actually moved to Fieldfisher, which at the time, correct me if I'm wrong, but had, I think, Europe's largest dedicated privacy practice, and you were then working with Eduardo Ustaran and and Stuart Room, of course, who were two further heavyweights in this space. And how could you just describe those sort of days? It must have been amazing energy around that time, you know, working with, with, with Stuart and Eduardo and, you know, did I guess there was some mentoring going on there as well for you?
Phil Lee: [00:18:28] Yeah, I think energy is probably the right word whenever you're talking about Eduardo. Um, yeah. I mean, it was I was always very drawn to the fieldfisher practice because what I found was, you know, when I was working at OCI, I would try to get out press releases and things about new things that were happening in, in data privacy. And, you know, invariably, no matter how quickly I turned it around, Fieldfisher always got there before me. And and so I would, you know, where I was working at OCI, I was a privacy specialist. But, you know, I wasn't working in a dedicated privacy team and and you know, the why Fieldfisher was so exciting was this kind of, this opportunity to work with a team that did nothing but data privacy and to have peers that could challenge my thinking on things? Because I sort of realized I'd gotten to a point where I thought I knew quite a lot, but I realized I didn't know everything. And there were times where I, you know, I wasn't always certain about the advice I was giving and having people I could turn to to say, you know, yes, Phil, we agree with you or no, Phil, you've got that horribly wrong. And this is why, you know, I realized I still had that aspect of learning that I needed to do.
Phil Lee: [00:19:33] And of course, you know, Eduardo was a legend, Stuart as well. And and, you know, Eduardo had approached me after a conference and invited me to join. And the team was fabulous. You know, it was everything I hoped it would be, you know, tremendous peers from, you know, the very sort of junior levels up to the very senior levels, all really knowledgeable and really well informed about privacy and, you know, and very committed to it as a cause. And, you know, and all the credit for that really goes to Eduardo and Stuart because they built up this amazing team. You know, I'd like to think that they got this amazing capacity for identifying skilled people. Not trying to blow my own trumpet there, but, you know, the people I was working with. And, you know, they were two very different characters as well, because, you know, Eduardo comes with this enormous enthusiasm, enormous level of energy. It's kind of, you know, it's hard not to kind of feel that kind of rub off on you when you're just kind of spend time with him and, you know, and Stuart also comes with this sort of very barristerial authority to everything he approaches and, you know, and so sort of learning from both of them, you know, I just got very different experiences from each.
Phil Lee: [00:20:44] You know Stuart as well with him. He got this enormous ability to multitask like no one I've ever seen. You know, he would he could take a phone call, give advice, be browsing the internet and texting people all at the same time, and do all of them extremely competently in a way that I've not really seen anybody else be able to manage. Certainly can't. And so it was, you know, it was a great experience. And both of them really sort of instilled a sense of. This sort of academic academic discipline about the law, making sure that you really knew what you were talking about and a sense of not just kind of. Trying to help your clients work around the rules, but also trying to drive your clients towards what was the right solution. And, you know, and that was that was a really sort of positive experience for me. So, you know, I owe both of them a great deal along with Nick, in terms of, you know, the my overall development as a privacy lawyer. Yeah.
Anthony Brown: [00:21:34] And I mean, again, in hindsight, I mean, could you have asked for three better people, perhaps to have worked with and learned from? So, yeah, perhaps it was it was written in the stars for you feel that you would you would go on this journey.
Phil Lee: [00:21:48] Well also actually I also need to give a shout out to Mark Watts at Bristows as well, because, you know, I sort of encountered Mark a couple of times over the over the years and had, you know, at one point very closely looked at joining Bristows. And then for various reasons, it didn't happen. But but, you know, Mark had always from afar been a supporter of my career as well and, you know, helped me get into a couple of, you know, sort of technology groups when really he had no obligation to. And I was working for a competitor law firm and everything. But I always found him a, you know, a great source of support as well. So I think I was quite lucky, actually, as a junior lawyer, I had some very well established, you know, senior lawyers in the area who, you know, who just sort of helped me along the way.
Anthony Brown: [00:22:30] You land at Fieldfisher and I think within two years you're made up as partner. Um, so, so you're relatively young at this age. Um, I mean, you still are, Phil. Of course, but you know what I mean? Um, so how did how did that all come about? And and that must have been was it was it a big did you notice a big step up to become a partner?
Phil Lee: [00:22:54] Yes, I did actually. I remember Eduardo saying to me before I got made up, he said, if you think you're busy now, you're about to become busier than you could ever possibly imagine. And that was very true. You know, it's a curious process going through partnership. You know, it's a thing that I think all lawyers aspire to when they're in private practice, partly because it's what you're told you should aspire to. Um, but honestly, I had no idea really what it entailed other than it meant I got a bit more senior and got paid a bit more. Um, you know, I didn't really I didn't really fully, fully understand the, you know, the entirety of what the role would be. So it was it was like a next step along the career progression path I was supposed to aim for, but without fully understanding the consequences of it. And it's quite a strange thing because, you know, back then, I remember when I, you know, I got promoted with a couple of other people into the partnership. And then the day after I got promoted, uh, you know, the firm gave us a talk on what it means to be a partner. And I remember thinking, that's just the wrong way round. It should have been first you have the talk. What does it mean to be a partner? Then you decide whether it's the right thing for you and you know, and then you go forward if that's what you're intending to do.
Phil Lee: [00:24:06] So it was it was quite a strange, quite a strange experience in that sense. And I know, you know, towards the end of my time at Fieldfisher, there was a lot more, I suppose, sort of mentoring and development that went into kind of getting people ready for partnership and a lot more discussion around, you know, sort of understanding what the business case is and what the financials were that were expected of them and, and the kind of their responsibilities in terms of being a manager and business development and upholding the values of the firm and all that kind of stuff. But I think, you know, at the time I was promoted, a lot of that stuff wasn't that infrastructure wasn't kind of in place in the way that it is now. Yeah. So when I, when I did get it, I, you know, I think a lot of sort of lawyers when they first qualify have this kind of odd experience where you go from being a trainee, where nobody trusts your advice and everything gets very, very thoroughly to overnight you become qualified and suddenly people start asking your opinion and taking you very seriously. And it's a very it's a very abrupt shift and it's quite unsettling, I think, for a lot of newly qualified solicitors, because suddenly you feel that you're given this credibility that you maybe don't feel you, you you've earned yet. And it's a similar thing when you become a partner because, you know, you go from sort of giving advice under the auspices of a, you know, the partner that you're working for, to suddenly being that partner that is responsible for maintaining client relationships and building new relationships and going out and developing business and and then also making sure that you feed the team you know, you are.
Phil Lee: [00:25:34] I was always very conscious of the fact that, you know, the the income generated was responsible for keeping people busy and paying their salaries. And, you know, and, you know, justifying, you know, new hires to the team and all of that kind of thing. So, yeah, I'd be honest and say I didn't fully appreciate all of that. You know, I think really I just saw at the time, I just thought of myself as being a moderately successful lawyer who was, you know, getting progressed along the path without fully understanding the consequences. But it was. But once I was promoted and actually did get my head around it properly, I mean, the the role of being a partner was was just fantastic. You know, I loved it because I think you reach a point in your career where you've done a lot of the routine legal advice, and so the issue becomes, what's the next challenge for me? And actually building a building a team and building a client base and generating revenue, that does become the challenge and it's hugely rewarding.
Anthony Brown: [00:26:27] Did you find business development, you know, kind of natural? I know some partners find it easier than others. You know, being able to self market and and speak this, that and the other. How did you find all of that?
Phil Lee: [00:26:42] Um, I think once I found my preferred way of doing it, it, it came relatively naturally. But I think different people have different approaches to this. And, you know, a lot of partners that that reach that level and that are really good at business development tend to be natural extroverts. You know, they kind of thrive in the company of other people and, and holding a room. And, and that really wasn't me. You know, I'm, I think by nature I'm probably more of an introvert. And, and so I used to kind of go to these, you know, sessions as a younger lawyer where they would say, oh, you know, once you walk into a room, introduce yourself to a whole group of people, you know, use their use their name several times in conversation. I'm hopeless at remembering names as well. So that was a bit of a non-starter for me. So, and that kind of stuff, to me, I just found slightly excruciating. Um, but where I did find, I, you know, where I did find my sort of way forward in terms of doing it was I made a lot of use of social media, you know, sort of Twitter, LinkedIn, things like that, were just really starting to, to become quite popular at that point.
Phil Lee: [00:27:47] And I found they were enormous platforms for me to really just download my thoughts on a topic and find that other people responded to it and then, you know, would sort of ping me questions about it or ask to meet me and, you know, discuss some of the things I was saying. And, you know, the kind of the speaking side of it, you know, talking at conferences I found was was great as well, because actually, if you give a presentation, it can be pretty nerve wracking, particularly when you're sort of new to the experience. But at the end of it, people would come up to you and they would introduce themselves to you, rather than you having to kind of break into conversation slightly awkwardly. And so I found that was a great way of sort of, you know, developing relationships and getting to know people as well. So I would say, you know, I'm not a natural kind of work, the room kind of guy, but but, you know, I just had to find different avenues for doing it. And those avenues worked very well for me.
Speaker3: [00:28:37] Excellent.
Anthony Brown: [00:28:38] And then, you know, a few months as a partner in London and then the firm asked you to go over to the US to Palo Alto and become a head of Fieldfisher's US office. So crazy few years for you. How did that all come about with the US peace?
Phil Lee: [00:28:58] Uh, you know, I have Eduardo to thank for that as well, but the honest answer to it is that we we've done a business trip over in San Francisco, and we were returning to the airport on the train. And as we were on the train, I was looking out the window and I think I just muttered under my breath, you know, God, I'd love to live out here. And Eduardo sort of turned around very sharply and said, would you really? In a heartbeat. Um, without really thinking about it, I thought it was just one of those conversations. And what I didn't know at the time was that the firm had been thinking about opening a Silicon Valley office, and they were trying to find the right person to do it. And I think I was quite lucky in that. I was sort of young enough that I hadn't got kids embedded in school. And so, you know, it was difficult to move and had the technology background, which obviously being in Silicon Valley, you know, is a major plus. And, you know, and I was going through the partnership promotion path. So, you know, I was kind of ticking the box in terms of being a partner rather than a senior associate. So entirely unbeknownst to me. I think Eduardo had a few conversations, you know, back in the office and then sort of almost sort of a month or two later, it was kind of almost presented to me like it was a fait accompli, you know? Hey, good news.
Phil Lee: [00:30:08] You're going out to San Francisco. And I was sorry. And so I then had to go home and explain that to my wife, who I think was sort of less enamored at the time, having young twins that we were suddenly going to be moving away. But but, you know, after a bit of pleading, she, she, she, she was very supportive of the whole thing. And we moved out and yeah, it was, you know, it was a tremendous experience, but it was like starting as a partner all over again because I suddenly landed on this on the other side of the Atlantic. Had very few people that I knew and sort of had to kind of work the circuit again in terms of getting to know people, establish my reputation, establish the firm's reputation. And, you know, I think my my real defining moment of success was that when we first landed, everybody referred to me as Phil Lee from Freshfields. And I had say, no, no, no, no, no, not Freshfields with Phil Fisher. And after about a year, people did actually start to refer to us as field fish. And I realized at that point, you know, that was when the name recognition had landed.
Anthony Brown: [00:31:06] Amazing. God, that must have been a very, very exciting period for you.
Speaker3: [00:31:12] And terrifying.
Anthony Brown: [00:31:14] Yeah. So you were literally first on the ground there. Were you with a remit to sort of build, build the office out. So you were responsible for for hiring and, you know, just essentially running the entire office, I guess, really. And obviously we're going to come on to DG file very shortly. But perhaps, you know, again, in hindsight, that's kind of stood you in some good stead, you know, in relation to setting up your own law firm. So but we'll come back to that. We'll come back to that Phil. So, so you know really successful time in you in the US. You then came back to the UK and we're talking here I think 2016 ish. So I think around that time GDPR had been finalized and there was the two year runway for everything to come into play. So you know pretty smart timing. Again, I would say, um, you know, from a career perspective to come back and obviously be super busy. So, um, but I know, um, you know, around those sort of times or that, that sort of time, in fact, you spent another couple of years pretty much at Fieldfisher. But I know that, you know, both in your personal life and professional life, you've been starting to have discussions with yourself about what was next and what was right for you and your family. And so, firstly, you made a huge decision to relocate with your family, um, to, to the rolling hills of North Yorkshire and actually leave London, but you actually continued to work at Fieldfisher. So, so what happened? And I guess this is prior to to the pandemic as well. So you were ahead of the curve with moving out of London?
Phil Lee: [00:32:54] Yes. I mean.
Speaker3: [00:32:56] The.
Phil Lee: [00:32:57] The short answer is I'd always had a long ambition to to move to North Yorkshire. You know, when I was, when I was younger, my parents used to come up here on holiday a lot and, and I just grew up loving the area really. So, so I'd always wanted to do it, but I thought it'd be one of those things that would be like a sort of retirement option for me. I didn't actually really think it would be possible to to going to work as a, as a busy city lawyer and do so from North Yorkshire. Um, I mean, really what it was, I think, you know, I mentioned we moved out to the States when my kids were really tiny. And at the time, while we were in London, I was spending a lot of my time commuting in and out, and I felt that I was missing a lot of time with the kids when they were, uh, when when, you know, in the mornings and the evenings because, you know, I tended to work late and then add the commute on to that. I got back, you know, when they were all tucked up. And then when we move to Silicon Valley, my, you know, I was living ten minutes away from the office. And so my long sort of almost three hour commute every day dropped down to about 20 minutes.
Phil Lee: [00:33:52] And I suddenly had all this extra time with the children. And when we moved back to the UK, I realized I just really didn't want to give that up. You know, I was as difficult as it would have been. I was prepared to walk away from, uh, from city life if it meant I had more time with with my wife and kids and. So I was thinking hard about it. My wife actually just said to me, well, why don't you ask Phil Fisher if you can work remotely? And and honestly, it hadn't really even occurred to me as an option. I was just so convinced it would. They would say no, but she persuaded me to ask. And so I had a conversation with the firm's managing partner, Michael Chissick, who, without batting an eyelid, said, yes. And, you know, he he sort of warned me that I might lose some clients if I wasn't in London. And and I said, okay, you know, I'm all right with that. But actually, as it kind of turned out, because I had such a strong US client base and, you know, being back in the UK for US clients, they really didn't really mind whether I was in London or North Yorkshire or wherever as long as I was on the end of zoom or, you know, Google Meet or whatever they needed to talk to me over.
Phil Lee: [00:34:59] And so actually had no impact on my client base whatsoever. You know, my clients only continued to grow over the over the coming years, and I found I could work very, very effectively from home. The difficulty, of course, is, you know, you've got a responsibility in terms of team management. So I had to make sure that I traveled down to London regularly. But that was, you know, that was manageable. I did that sort of every couple of weeks. And I was lucky that I had a great team of partners, you know, Hazel, Renzo, Leone and at the time, Judy Krieg in London, who, you know, who who all played a huge role in terms of managing the team. So so I was kind of left to focus really on, on, you know, building clients and generating work. And yeah, and it just worked extremely well. But it did mean still work. Very long days. But not having the commute meant I did get to see my my kids at the beginning and end of the day and for for my and their, you know, emotional well-being. That was a that was hugely important.
Anthony Brown: [00:35:52] And as I alluded to as well, I mean, just a couple of years prior to this, all being restricted to being at home, working at home, you know, working over zoom teams, whatever it might be. And you were you were already sort of in the flow of that, I guess, given the circumstances. So and then I guess, you know, that that arrangement continued, um, you know, for, for a good period of time. But then you made another enormous decision, um, career wise, which is you actually decided to, to, to move on from fieldfisher probably at a time, I guess, when your stock couldn't have been any higher, you know, in terms of being so well respected, regarded within the community as a privacy leader. Um, so what happened there, Phil? What what was the thought process around that time?
Speaker3: [00:36:47] Uh.
Phil Lee: [00:36:49] It was a couple of things, I think, really, I think a lot of the people that I had worked very successfully with in the team at Fieldfisher had moved on. And, you know, they'd all taken great roles in big tech companies and, you know, and so there was sort of new blood coming into the team. And so I felt maybe there was a bit of a changing of the guard that way. And that was perhaps a sign for me, but also I think, you know, sort of a bit longer term. I'd always sort of harboured that thought about could I establish my own practice, could I run my own business, maybe sort of given the bug a little bit by having run the US office in, in Silicon Valley and realizing all the things I got wrong there and could maybe do better second time around. And, and so it was kind of one of those nagging thoughts where I think, where I just thought, if I don't try and do it now, I'm probably never going to do it. And so, you know, so I decided to take a break and for a period of time, just reflect on, you know, what it was I wanted to do next and just take some time out because I'd been working hard for, you know, 20 odd years. And I was exhausted as much as anything. So I just needed, needed a bit of a rest. But then during that time, you know, I kept returning to the source about, you know, establishing my own practice and then was slightly terrified about doing so because it felt like a very grown up thing to do to set up your own company and the kind of thing that other people do. Not that you do yourself. But I decided, you know, I decided in the end, after speaking to some others who'd done the same, that I would give it a shot and see where it took me. And and so that was how Digiphile was born.
Speaker3: [00:38:23] Excellent.
Anthony Brown: [00:38:24] I was actually thinking about the name Digiphile and realized that it's got your name in it, Phil, so it was that one of the.
Speaker3: [00:38:35] Honest goodness. It was.
Phil Lee: [00:38:36] It was like trying to choose the name of your university rock band.
Speaker3: [00:38:40] We agonized for.
Phil Lee: [00:38:41] Weeks over the name, you know, had my wife, my kids. We were all going through various iterations. And to me and, you know, people often, you know, build their own practices based around their own name, which I can entirely respect. You know, often the brand value is in the individual. And for me, I just I just thought I'd just feel too embarrassed doing that. It felt a little bit too much like sort of hubris on my part. So, uh, so I wanted to I wanted to have a name that wasn't just fill the, you know, legal services or something like that, but at the same time, you know, had a bit of me in it. And so, so we we landed on Digiphile We thought it was a good name because, you know, as anybody who's worked with me will tell you, I just have an absolute love of all new technologies. And so, you know, it kind of represented both that but also got the fill in there.
Speaker3: [00:39:27] Yeah. Excellent. Yeah.
Anthony Brown: [00:39:29] And also I've noted your your extremely modern job title, which is a hybrid between a managing director and a zettabyte lawyer. Um, so it's truly refreshing. So how have you found it anyway? Phil? What's. I mean, you've been what? You've been sort of trading for just under a year. Is it now or so? How has it all been? Yeah.
Phil Lee: [00:39:51] That's right. Well, firstly, on the zettabyte lawyer thing, I mean, the, the other driving motivation for me in setting up Digiphile was just to try and do a few things slightly different. There are, you know, there are ways of working in the city that I wanted to kind of revisit in terms of running my own practice. And and so that was things like offering greater flexible working, having more of a charitable arm to kind of some of the stuff that we do. Um, and to, you know, kind of making sure that we, you know, we have lawyers who are at the top of their game, but also we don't work them into the ground, which is a worry I have about the way that a lot of big city practices are going nowadays, with the ever greater emphasis on hours and rates and fees and so on. So I wanted to do something that would enable people to develop their careers and become sort of more rounded out lawyers without sort of killing them in the process of doing so. Um, the in terms of how it's gone, I mean, it's just been tremendous, really. I think, um, I hadn't really I just wasn't sure, you know, who would follow me. I mean, the biggest mistakes I've ever seen lawyers make in their career has been when they think that their the whole, you know, that they are the be all and end all of their practice. And you know, I've seen partners get hired who promise to bring in a huge amount of money and then fail to do so because they don't realize actually the attraction was never really them. It was the firm that they were at.
Phil Lee: [00:41:09] And and Fieldfisher obviously is an absolutely stellar firm. And so so, you know, my concern was when I set up Digiphile that, you know, maybe I would just have a small trickle of clients and that would be it. But actually from the word go, we were just inundated with demand. And and originally I thought, you know, it would just be me. I'd see how I could carry on on my own, you know, with my wife providing some back office support, very quickly realized that I was just turning away a lot of clients and a lot of good work. And a lot of the people I was having to turn away were people I've known for for a very long time. And just on a personal level, it felt like I was letting down friends and on a, you know, business level, it felt kind of stupid to keep turning away money. So so, you know, the end, I decided that we would recruit and build the team up a little bit. Um, and so we're, you know, we're now at five people, um, and two and three of us are lawyers, two on the operations kind of support side. And, yeah, you know, the practice continues to be very, very busy. We're continuing to get new enquiries, new clients all the time. Um, you know, my sort of my original thinking was, you know, maybe I'd have a roster of about ten clients who would send me kind of repeat work, you know, and that would keep me busy. We're currently at about 50 clients, and I'm hoping we're going to continue to grow that. And so it's all going very well.
Anthony Brown: [00:42:26] Amazing. So it's so the snowball has begun and and I guess it's there's no way of stopping it probably now I'd imagine to a certain degree in the nicest possible way. So, so you do see that Digiphile will continue to grow and you're on that path now?
Phil Lee: [00:42:41] Yeah I am I've got no ambitions to become the next mega firm. But I think certainly as a as a. You know, as a as a good sized, mid-sized niche practice. You know, our focus is always going to be on, on sort of data protection and cyber and AI and you know, maybe digital regulation. We're not going to we have no aspirations to become a full service firm doing absolutely everything. I want to kind of keep that focus. And, you know, while I sort of hope to grow the team a bit more so that we get more good specialists doing the kind of work that we like to do, I also kind of want to keep it at a level where everybody knows everyone and we can, you know, be personal. And so, so, you know, we will grow, but we're not going to become huge, I think is the best answer, mind you. Having said that, you know, I'll also tell you that the one thing I've learned over the past year is that everything I thought was going to happen ended up changing. So you never know. Maybe I'll revisit these, this, these, these thoughts in a couple of years time. But for now, that's the thinking.
Anthony Brown: [00:43:40] I feel another podcast episode coming on with you, Phil, in about three years, when you're in your mega mega high rise in the city and in fact, you know, it amazes me, you know, because obviously part of my job, I speak to so many people, you know, of your ilk and your your caliber, and it never ceases to amaze me how you know, how regularly people kind of allude to the fact that they suffer with a bit of imposter syndrome at times. And and it amaze me as much as anyone. When we spoke a few weeks ago that you you'd felt that when you first started, you know, you had some imposter syndrome. And I think anyone who knows you, Phil, and has worked with you or followed your career would think that's just ludicrous knowing what you've achieved. But I guess to some degree we all, you know, experience that, you know, in our lives. But what just what brought that on for you? Do you think what's, uh.
Speaker3: [00:44:42] Oh.
Phil Lee: [00:44:43] Uh, you.
Speaker3: [00:44:43] Know.
Phil Lee: [00:44:44] I think I'm always very, very conscious of what it is. I don't know. And, you know, I think particularly in this sort of age where in the privacy space, there are so many talented professionals out there now, you know, you know, talking earlier about sort of what it was like 20 years ago. There was a handful of us and it was easy to be, uh, to, to be recognized in a very small space, you know, now it's an enormous space. You know, I actually remember the IAPP coming to visit Trevor, coming to visit us, you know, at I think it was back in around 2007 when I was at OC, and he was kind of proudly telling us at the time, I think the IAPP had about 7000 members, you know, now it's now it's, I don't know, 80,000 members plus, you know, it just gives you an idea of the growth of the profession. So I'm always very aware of the fact that there are a lot more people out there now doing what I do. You know, I read a lot of the stuff that they publish, and, you know, some of it is remarkably erudite and well thought out.
Phil Lee: [00:45:41] And, and, you know, you sometimes you read things and you think to yourself, gosh, I wish I'd, I wish I'd thought of that, or I really wish I'd, you know, I'd been able to write that or that had been something I'd been aware of. And so, you know, starting up your own practice or even just being a partner in a big practice, you know, you're always very conscious of the fact that that there are other people who maybe do what you do. In fact, not maybe almost certainly do what you do better than you do it. But I suppose it's also that kind of pressure that also drives you to keep on improving yourself. So imposter syndrome is, you know, it definitely is something that you worry about. You worry there are people that are more deserving than you to sort of have some of the success you've had. But at the same time, I suppose it's that anxiety that keeps you working hard and trying to achieve.
Speaker3: [00:46:27] Exactly.
Anthony Brown: [00:46:28] Never rest on your laurels. Um, no. It's fascinating to to think about that and hear about that. Phil. Um, and, you know, that doesn't seem to be a dull moment, as we know in the world of privacy, it hasn't been for many, many years. Um, but what do you see right now, present day, as a single biggest challenge for for businesses in relation to privacy.
Phil Lee: [00:46:52] I'm sure everybody's going to say this, but I think it has to be AI, doesn't it? I mean, it's funny, actually, one of the things I'm doing later today is giving a presentation to clients around AI for data protection professionals. And and when I deliver it, I'm going to be talking through sort of how the technology actually works. And you know, what things like neural nets are. But then going into kind of how privacy regulation applies, it's about the AI act. And.
Speaker3: [00:47:20] But, you know, the really.
Phil Lee: [00:47:21] Interesting thing about it is that there is like a perfect storm of events. You know, on the one hand, you've got this remarkably sophisticated technology that's very, very hard for most people to understand. And actually, even for the engineers, you know, often they know how to build it, but they don't know how it achieves the things that it achieves. Always. On the other hand, you've got this wealth of regulation emerging, you know, both in terms of applying existing regulation, but also you've got all these governments piling in and producing sort of non-binding frameworks and proposing new laws and what have you. And, and for a privacy law that's just, you know, overwhelming amount of information to take in, and then you've got the fact that the use of AI can be so varied, it's so dependent on context. And so trying to say, well, this is the solution that will work across everything just isn't something that exists. You always have to look at, okay, you know, what are we doing here? What's the purpose and what's the data? Who's going to be using it? Where is it going to be launched.
Phil Lee: [00:48:14] All of these different things. So it's a remarkably complex area to deal with. But at the same time, you know, almost every client I speak to tells me that, you know, they're getting this huge pressure from their, their business leaders to say, you know, we we have to implement AI. We have to do it like yesterday. We're behind our competitors. We don't have time to stop and think about this. We just need to do it, do it, do it. And so you've got this, as I say, this perfect storm of a huge complexity, huge amounts of regulation, but then a drive to do everything yesterday and I think. How we land on a coherent set of regulation. That is actually something that people can work with and implement in practice, that doesn't seek massive divergence, that doesn't create massive divergence across borders, but at the same time addresses some of the very significant risks that certain types of AI can introduce. I mean, that I think is going to be the challenge for the next ten, 20 years.
Anthony Brown: [00:49:14] In the time that you've specialized almost two decades in privacy and data protection. Is this probably in the last 12 months with obviously everyone's talking about AI? Is this probably been the the most complex area and you know where you've gone blind? Me okay. Um, how is this going to pan out?
Phil Lee: [00:49:34] Yeah. I mean, I think over the course of my career, I've probably seen a number of sort of peaks and troughs in terms of work. You know, cookie consent was a big thing. Data transfers is the gift that keeps on giving. You know, CCPA, you know, standard contractual clauses. Obviously the GDPR implementation was a was a hugely busy period for everybody. I don't think I've seen. Even with all of those things, I don't think I've seen anything that has exploded onto the scene quite in the way that AI and particularly generative AI has. I mean, you know, it's always been a bit of my practice for a number of years. There were always clients coming forward saying, we're doing this bit of machine learning or that bit of machine learning. But it felt like a sort of, you know, over the past year, it's just caught everybody's imagination. I think OpenAI and ChatGPT are really, you know, we can attribute it to the, to to the awakening that ChatGPT brought. I mean, I think for most people when he talks about machine learning, it was something that was slightly ethereal and hard for them to grasp hold of or to understand. And then ChatGPT emerged and was suddenly writing songs and poems and stories and emails and what have you, and suddenly everybody got it. And I think they were also just amazed at the quality with which it could do it. I mean, I know everybody likes to get a bit sort of snobbish about, oh, it's got all these hallucinations and what have you, but the reality, particularly with the later versions, is that it does it extremely well, much more in a much more advanced way than I think many of us realise was possible. And with that, suddenly there's been the explosion of business interest. And so. So yes, on a professional level, I don't think I've ever seen anything that has grabbed as much attention as this has.
Anthony Brown: [00:51:15] Yeah. Okay. So well, we're almost done, Phil. But so as I always ask at the end of each episode, just for a bit of fun, who would be your two ultimate dinner guests?
Speaker3: [00:51:31] Oh, you know, this.
Phil Lee: [00:51:32] Is this is such a difficult question to ask because I was I was thinking about this. And, you know, I'm not somebody who's that star struck by other people. You know, I guess the people I tend to draw inspiration from are often the people that are closest to me. So, you know, it is my parents and the things that they've been through. It's my wife and my kids. It's the little everyday things that inspire me more so than the than the big, the big celebrities or politicians. But if given that I can't bring my entire family to the dinner, I would probably have to settle on two people. Stephen Fry, mainly because he's just this remarkably erudite individual who I love reading his books. I love listening to him on the radio. You know, he just has this kind of depth and breadth of knowledge about absolutely everything. That and a way of presenting it in a very light touch way that I always feel whenever I listen to him, that I come away a more educated person than I was before. So, so and and also, I think he'd be bloody good entertainment as well, so I think. Secondly, Malala Yousafzai I think would be my second pick. I think she's just hugely inspirational in terms of being somebody who is very young, who's gone through just experiences that I can't imagine lived a life that is, is, you know, more in 20 odd years than I have in my 40 odd, but also has kind of. Without asking to be become a sort of a leader on the world stage, but does so again in a very sort of understated way, and just seems like a normal person thrust into the limelight and and handling things in a very. Just an incredible, incredible, intelligent way that promoting human rights, promoting girls education. I think, you know, she probably is, is, you know, if I had to pick a hero, she would be my hero. So I think the two of them would make for a great dinner.
Anthony Brown: [00:53:28] Absolutely can't. Can't disagree.
Speaker3: [00:53:29] We were invited, by the way. Anthony.
Anthony Brown: [00:53:31] Oh, thank you, thank you. I'd love to come along. I'd love to come along. Actually, just struck me. When you're talking about Stephen Fry, I was thinking perhaps. Perhaps that's. What if you had the identikit of a very good lawyer, a lot of the attributes he's got, you know, depth of knowledge, but able to communicate it succinctly and understandably for the normal person on the street, perhaps, is, you know, attributed to many lawyers much like yourself. So, Phil, listen, thank you so much. I've really enjoyed our session and I'm sure our listeners will as well. And we all wish you the absolute best with Digiphile, and we all look forward to watching it grow and go from strength to strength to everyone who's listened. Thank you so much. I'll be back very soon, I hope, with somebody else to talk about their journeys through privacy. But for now, Phil, thanks again and have a good day.
Speaker3: [00:54:24] Thank you very much for having me.