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Being a successful lawyer in an AI organisation

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Ed Hirst’s happiness comes from interacting with people with different perspectives, making his impact on the world and having the opportunity to learn about truly ground-breaking innovations. His role at the AI business Google DeepMind ticks all the boxes.

After studying philosophy, politics and economics at Durham University and international law and politics at SciencesPo in Paris, Ed Hirst didn’t initially have a particularly clear career path and considered politics. On campus at Durham, he attended events that A&O was running but decided to keep his options open and took the next step to study for his law conversion exams while working for an MP.

“What initially appealed to me about a career in law was that it seemed very much about people and cultivating relationships,” he said. “I learned that ‘A&O-style’ law was about being close to big things and exciting developments and being a part of projects that have a bigger impact than what’s on our doorstep. The exciting, influential decision-making definitely attracted me.”

A&O’s global reach and reputation for top-performing lawyers working at the cutting edge of many industries led him to apply for the firm’s Summer Vacation Scheme.

“As soon as I met with my fellow vac schemers and those at A&O who were facilitating the scheme, I knew they were the kind of people I’d like to have as colleagues. It sounded like great work; the team was super-approachable and extremely flexible when I broached the subject of a year abroad following my studies.

Alex Shandro was my training supervisor during the summer of 2015, and he was most certainly the person who helped me decide to join A&O on a training contract.”

As soon as I met with my fellow vac schemers and those at A&O who were facilitating the scheme, I knew they were the kind of people I’d like to have as colleagues.

The ‘people’ element

After joining A&O as a trainee in 2019, Ed’s first seat was in the Commercial, Data and IP practice. He “greatly enjoyed” the experience, particularly the ‘people’ element of the role and working with both Alex and the wider team. The role was full of variety, including deal-making and finding diplomatic solutions to commercial negotiations.

For his final seat, Ed took up a secondment at Google DeepMind, a business that researches and builds safe artificial intelligence (AI) systems. “Working in-house for the first time felt like a big change,” he said. “I found myself in a small legal team where I was expected to find solutions rather than just put forward potential options. I was closer to the decision-making and enjoyed the buzz of working with the research teams.”

Energy and enthusiasm

Ed found advising AI and robotics research teams, a diverse international group, “incredibly interesting – you couldn’t help but feel the energy and enthusiasm.”

“For the first time I was liaising directly with clients, who often hadn’t dealt with lawyers before, rather than with opposing legal teams. I was interfacing with heads of research, the security team, the exec committee – all with their own ideas of their optimal outcomes and excited about the work they were doing.

“I enjoyed the internal negotiation aspect of the role; finding solutions that work for all stakeholders, identifying the common threads and identifying efficient ways to tie them together. That’s a big part of the role for an in-house lawyer.”

His time at Google DeepMind gave Ed a taste for working in-house and a desire to pursue opportunities later in his career. Meanwhile, when he qualified in 2021, he returned to the Commercial team and work that interested him.

Less than two years later, Ed learned of a role at Google DeepMind and he felt he should apply for it. “The opportunity to return to such a fast-paced and interesting business appealed, though the reality of leaving A&O came about a little earlier than I’d anticipated,” he said.

Ed’s current role is to support the research business and product efforts across the entire team at Google DeepMind, acting in an advisory role as well as supporting commercial transactions.

“Google DeepMind to me is about advancing the state of science and using that to benefit the world,” he said. “It’s at the pinnacle of science, using research to develop AI and then using AI to develop the research.

“But it’s not ‘just science’. AI is being employed to improve lives and power systems with never-before-seen capabilities.”

Generative AI is already having an impact on the legal profession, being used to speed up more of the ‘mundane’ work that lawyers are faced with. Ed believes it’s also set to change the tech industry itself. For example, Google DeepMind has developed fundamental research into algorithmic efficiency, using AI to improve algorithms and to efficiently define processing within the computing hardware that we use every day, such as mobile phones and laptops.

The greatest challenge for Ed is getting to grips with the science behind AI: “A good lawyer has to understand the subject matter upon which they are advising and what matters to those receiving the advice. The science is part of what makes my job so interesting. I’ve learned so much – from particle physics to neuroscience – from incredibly knowledgeable colleagues.”

Diversity at Google DeepMind has two important goals: the aim of inclusivity but also to encourage breadth of thinking. Its scholarship programme is part of a concerted effort to inspire diverse groups of people to pursue a career in AI research.

But it’s not ‘just science’. AI is being employed to improve lives and power systems with never-before-seen capabilities.

Benefits of diversity

Meanwhile, Ed and his colleagues in Google DeepMind’s legal team work with Aspiring Solicitors and Flex Legal to help people from underrepresented groups access the legal world. “There’s a genuine understanding that we benefit from having diverse people around the table, as different perspectives working together on the research, as well as the legal advice, will help create AI and solutions that we can all benefit from.”

He also volunteers as a mentor for Spear Islington, helping people aged 16-24 who face barriers to accessing work to believe in themselves and their value in society. As part of the six-week programmes, organised sessions provide mentors who run mock interviews and CV-writing clinics.

Ed is a believer in the power of mentors and considers himself lucky to have benefitted from many through his professional life. “I’ve had hugely supportive managers who have my best interests at heart and have helped me unlock my potential,” he said. “I feel I’ve been raised by a village of mentors – many at A&O – rather than one in particular, and their different personalities and viewpoints have shaped who I am today.”

A fine balance

Ed has an interesting view on what to look for when appointing advisers, having experience of working both in-house and within private practice. He said: “Risk for us is anything that may block research and the mission, so sometimes it might be a fine balance between accepting slightly less favourable terms in an agreement and, for instance, missing out on the chance to work with an external partner who could add great benefit to our research…

“As a junior lawyer, I would always aim my advice to cover every eventuality. Yet, now I’m working in-house and seek external advice, I want an adviser who understands what actually matters to us and has the confidence to leave aside the remote or irrelevant.”

For Ed, being a good lawyer is about reading the room, being empathic to the reasons behind your stakeholders’ views, while still standing behind your beliefs on what the probable or optimal outcome will or should be. 

Research boosts trust and safety technology

For the past ten years, Google DeepMind has focused mainly on research, and those years of research have given birth to a suite of scientific advancements, as well as trust and safety technologies.

One of its groundbreaking products is SynthID, which takes a promising step towards answering the questions around how we trust what we see online. “AI-powered image generation is improving every day, which is exciting, but it brings with it a real risk of people being misled,” said Ed. “SynthID can embed an imperceptible digital watermark into images generated by an AI model and later identify whether that model generated a given image.

“It’s important that solutions like these are developed to help people know what to trust. Over time, the technology will have to extend to other modalities, such as audio and video.”

Google DeepMind also undertakes research with a strong environmental focus. Optimising the efficiency of national energy grids was the focus of early research. The business has also carried out research on finding ways to distribute power efficiently to data centres, climate forecast mapping and weather forecasting. There’s also a considerable nuclear fusion research effort. This research could add to the body of knowledge that ultimately may bring about the clean energy we all hope for.

 

Reconnect with Ed Hirst.

Ed Hirst

Associate Commercial Counsel at Google DeepMind
A&O: 2019-2022

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