By Alison Preece | May 23, 2023 | Lawyer Limelights
It’s exceedingly rare these days for a technology dispute or transaction to exist within just one set of borders. The deals are almost always international, and, for those existing in the crypto space, the geography is even more amorphous.
Bijal Vakil’s work puts him at the forefront of complex technology matters, working worldwide with the biggest players in the space. And he’s the right man for the job.
Vakil is a first generation American. Traveling back and forth to India to visit extended family growing up, he developed a strong sense of the power technology has to improves lives. He also saw firsthand that the world was interconnected.
He’s bringing those formative insights to his latest role as the co-head of technology at Allen & Overy, a global firm with over 40 offices located in the key technology centers of the world. “We're just one office with really long hallways,” says Vakil, who co-founded the firm’s Silicon Valley and San Francisco offices in 2021.
Vakil’s practice is primarily focused on technology disputes, including complex and cross-border patent litigation. He’s known for his innovative approach to addressing the most challenging legal issues facing technology cases – in many instances unchartered waters. For example, Vakil helped form the Cryptocurrency Open Patent Alliance, a ground-breaking consortium of companies that helps reduce the risks of patent litigation in the crypto industry.
Lawdragon: Where did your interest in technology came from? How did you come to focus your practice in that sector?
Bijal Vakil: I'm one of those rare tech lawyers who doesn't have something like an engineering degree. I was a social science major. I’ve just always been interested in technology. I grew up in the U.S., with all my extended family in India. Going back and forth so often, I saw the power technology has to really be life changing. Fortunately that gap is much smaller now, with the internet and other advances changing lives for many.
LD: How did you come to the law?
BV: I was an only child for many years, and my parents said, "You like to argue all the time, you should be a lawyer." Turned out to be a good fit. I like having the ability to take complex technology and make it understandable, for the judge, the jury, even the board members when we’re presenting about a case.
Interestingly enough, my great grandparents were lawyers in India, which I didn’t find out until much later. I never met them. They had a very difficult path to it, getting shipped off, literally by ship, from India to England, because we were under British rule. They learned the Common Law and went back to practice and act as judges on small disputes.
LD: That’s incredible. Where did you start out as a lawyer?
BV: I started off practicing law in Los Angeles, but I quickly realized that in order to really do tech law, I had to move up here. So I moved up to the Bay Area and worked at a patent boutique where I really started honing in on the skills for all aspects of a solid tech practice from patent litigation to all things technology related. I believe you're really a well-rounded lawyer when you can counsel on industry-specific issues. You have to know the whole life cycle from how you get patents, what happens to them, and then at the end, 99 percent of the cases settle, so you learn how to settle them in unique and creative ways.
There needs to be a better way of democratizing payments around the world. It's too difficult right now. Crypto is the solution, or at least one solution.
LD: I saw that you teach sometimes at Berkeley Law and UC Davis. Can you tell us why that's important to you or what you find enjoyable about it?
BV: I've really enjoyed learning fresh and new perspectives from students. So much of law is founded in policy, and when you have the chance to hear different perspectives as to why policy goals may have shifted or why they're different, it's very interesting.
For example, when I was in law school, we learned that patents are good because they encourage companies to create and innovate. Which is very true. But if you were in law school during Covid, you might start to question patent protection rules. That shift in thinking might lead to exceptions or changes in policy down the line. It’s a great perspective to be around students.
LD: Let’s talk crypto. The market has been volatile lately. What are your thoughts there?
BV: It is volatile right now. People are a bit anxious, but I don't believe there's any change to the long-term view that crypto is here to stay. It's just a matter of how we embrace it.
LD: Do you think there's certain regulatory updates that we need to help stabilize the market?
BV: There's no doubt that regulations will come about, tax reporting will come out, there'll be tax consequences and the like. And regulation is not a bad thing. It legitimizes crypto. But there certainly needs to be a better way of democratizing payments around the world. It's too difficult right now. Crypto is the solution, or at least one solution.
It’s a mind shift that needs to happen. Gen Z sees it now. They want a way to make payments cross border, and they want it to be easier. At some level, it’s a failure of our own financial systems that everything was made so difficult. Back in the day, my parents had to take money and go to Western Union or get a bank note and it wouldn't get cashed in India. It was crazy.
LD: Tech companies have been experiencing lower valuations in the past year or so. What do you think accounts for that, and do you think the trend will continue?
BV: If I had a crystal ball, I might not be practicing law. What I do know is that lower valuations in the tech industry also create a lot of opportunities. For M&A deals, as well as opportunities to prioritize certain investments. It's not all a bad thing.
LD: Investors seem to be demanding more ESG metrics across industries. How are you seeing that play out in the tech sector?
BV: It is absolutely a hot topic, we talk about it all the time. In almost every context, we have to think about the environmental, social, and governance aspects of the deal, transaction or project. Again, it's one of those issues that's not talked about in law school, but should be.
LD: Why did you decide to join Allen & Overy?
BV: I joined A&O because it had an amazing global footprint where it was already number one in tech. We came to join a leading technology practice globally. Long gone are the days when technology issues are only in one jurisdiction. Tech companies in Silicon Valley, they want to walk to my office in Palo Alto and get help with their issues in England, France, Germany and China. And all on the same day, because the products are launched the same day. The iPhone 14 comes out everywhere at once. So you need to be able to address those with a consistent framework and consistent messaging on the same day.
Lawyers are advocates. If you're going to build a career advocating for other people, you must be able to advocate for yourself.
With patent litigation, a lot of patent cases get filed in the U.S. because it’s a big country with a lot of people, so you have big damages awards. But Europe as a unit, plus or minus England, is larger in population. So we're seeing now, it's doing your clients a disservice if you don't think about a European component to any patent issue.
LD: What would you say is your management style?
BV: I believe it is important to leave a legacy and to do things for others. I view my responsibility and leadership role in the firm as very important. I’m a guardian of its culture, making sure generations that come after me can succeed, and enjoy it as well.
DEI is also a big focus of mine. When I was applying to law school, and in it, I didn't have any role models, no one to bounce ideas off of. My parents became worried about me going to law school because they said that I had a funny name, so it would be hard to be a trial lawyer and the boardrooms wouldn't take me seriously. I've reached a point where I've achieved those goals, but I believe our progress is still far behind where it needs to be. I want to be here to serve as a role model and to help others.
LD: What advice do you give to those young lawyers who might feel like outsiders in the profession?
BV: You need to recognize that lawyers are advocates for others. If you're going to build a career advocating for other people, you must be able to advocate for yourself. So, take it upon yourself to speak up and show up. Think about the partners you work for as your clients. It is a game changer. As a manager, if someone's not going to advocate for themselves, then I don't want them on my teams because how good of a job are they going to do?
I also tell young lawyers and law students to be intellectually curious. Take business classes, because so much of law is the business of law and building relationships, which is not taught in law schools. Law schools are not practical. Business school helps you become more well-rounded.
Early on in my career, I had a large case before the International Trade Commission. It was probably one of the most complex ITC cases and involved many parties. That's where I really homed in on the balance that you need between the technical issues and the business issues in order to resolve these complex matters.
LD: Final question: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?
BV: Direct, clear and policy driven.