Meet our new partner: Robert Dearn

25 Aug 2022
Time to read: 3 minutes

How would you describe your practice in one sentence?

I help Government and private sector clients realise their digital transformation ambitions through the adoption of technology and data-driven products and services.

Were you always interested in digital law?

When I started out as a lawyer I was absolutely adamant I’d one day be a barrister practising in defamation and IP law. I loved the drama and intensity of courtroom work.

But I then worked for a partner who was a guru in front-end digital and IP law and discovered the type of work I was most excited by was transactional, not advocacy. I really loved being involved in large projects and being closer to value generation – helping clients add value rather than just solve their disputes.

But I also loved the nature of the work – with new technology you are always on your toes, always evolving, and dealing with something that is the subject of conversations around the water cooler or over dinner. The intellectual challenge alone means you can’t get stale.

What clients do you work with and what legal challenges do you solve?

My practice is primarily focused on advising Commonwealth Government clients on major digital transformation projects and other high-profile Government programs.

I’ve spent a lot of time working in the digital health space, advising both the Australian and US Governments on major digital health projects and programs, such as the My Health Record in Australia and the Cancer Moonshot and information blocking laws in the US.

Away from public sector work, I advise private sector clients on technology and data commercialisation projects. and provide expert support on technology and data-related issues arising in corporate transactions.

Digitalisation is complex and, for many clients, still new. I enjoy getting in the weeds on the technology or services being adopted or procured, and partnering with clients to provide end-to-end support. In addition to getting the contracting and risk allocation model right, this often means helping clients solve complex challenges such as IP ownership and licensing, and privacy and data protection issues, and navigating complex regulatory compliance issues.

Is there anything that won’t be touched by digital transformation?

It’s difficult to see any industry or area of life that won’t be touched by digitalisation! We already live in a world replete with sensors, screens, and data. Even our most personal (human) interactions are now transacted via or with the aid of technology. The bigger issue is perhaps whether the digital technologies reshaping the economy will leave some people behind and how we can avoid entrenching inequities for those who lack digital access.

Has digital transformation stopped being an event and become business as usual?

Digital transformation enhances existing activities and introduces entirely new business models. We are definitely still going through a seismic shift, and that is creating a new baseline for how we work and operate. But advances in technology will inevitably provide opportunities for brand new business models we can’t even yet imagine. Novel use cases will emerge around 5G technology’s low latency, and quantum computing (when it arrives) will change the game completely.

Eventually digital won’t even be the distinguishing feature of how we talk about digitally-enabled activities or services. In the healthcare sector, for example, it is rare for an interaction not to touch digital technology (such as telehealth, digital records, electronic scripts, patient monitoring, and mhealth apps). We will soon drop the "digital" moniker and just talk about "digital health" as "health".

What are some of the biggest challenges you think need to be conquered in the next five years?

Anyone who predicts too far into the future from a tech perspective will always be wrong – it’s just a question of how wrong.

Ultimately, however, I would like a future in which businesses compete on the innovative product or services they can deliver, and not just access to data.

A major challenge for Government surrounds the question of trust. Trust in Government and trust in the Government’s ability to deliver services online will be central to a Government’s ability to realise its digital transformation agenda. The work being done by the Commonwealth on digital identity, and by States like NSW around data wallets, offers a really strong foundation for facilitating interactions between the public and Government that are safe, secure and frictionless. However, IT failures in Government (especially those implicating privacy concerns and technology with questionable utility) erode the public’s trust in Government and its digital competence.

Another big challenge is the development of regulatory frameworks for emerging technology. This is particularly relevant for artificial intelligence and automated decision-making. While ethical frameworks already exist, the emergence of appropriate and enforceable legal and regulatory frameworks will be critical to giving both individuals and businesses the confidence that AI is being developed in an ethical and trustworthy manner. A similar issue surrounds digital currencies and other blockchain technologies, where regulation could increase adoption but have a significant impact on the viability of the technology.

Get in touch

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.