Charlie Morgan is a partner in our global arbitration team, based in London. He specialises in energy and technology disputes, and his recent experience includes advising energy majors, global tech companies and start-up/scale-up companies in high-value and complex disputes. Charlie was promoted to the partnership on 1 May 2023.
You joined the firm as a trainee – can you tell us a bit about your path to partnership?
My first seat as a trainee in 2012 was in the London arbitration team working with Paula Hodges KC and Chris Parker KC. I attended a hearing where I saw both of them up on their feet doing all of the advocacy and it was at that point that I got the arbitration bug!
My early career was driven largely by my interest in the energy sector – as a trainee I spent six months on secondment at BG Group (now Shell) and I also went to Paris to sit with our infrastructure and projects team. Since then, I have worked on disputes in the energy sector across many jurisdictions and emerging markets.
It was then I noticed shifts in our clients' businesses and in how heavily they were relying on digital technologies. I spent a lot of time upskilling on existing and emerging technologies and how they are being used. This led to me develop a tech disputes specialism, acting on a number of disputes for both tech and non-tech clients, from joint ventures for tech infrastructure (eg, fibre cables) to governance disputes, data migration disputes, outsourcing going wrong, cloud-computing and crypto and digital asset disputes. This is a huge growth area with fantastic opportunities for our clients; but it also comes with risks and unavoidable disputes.
My path to partnership would not be complete without mentioning my two boys, who are now aged four and two. I took advantage of the firm's generous shared parental leave policy to spend time with them in the early days. They've certainly helped to hone my problem solving and multi-tasking skills!
Your practice focuses on energy disputes and technology. What trends do you see at the moment and why are these disputes going to arbitration?
A lot of recent macro trends arise from global events like Covid-19, the Ukraine war, decarbonisation or digital transformation, and they apply (though in different ways) to energy and tech. Our clients' businesses and the world in which they operate continue to be increasingly complex and international. The disputes they throw up involve different parties, jurisdictions and legal systems. They are also often commercially sensitive and strategic in nature. It is no wonder that arbitration as an international, flexible and neutral forum is in high demand.
In the energy sector, we have seen a lot of price disputes arising from the volatility of commodity prices, supply-chain disruptions and their operational impacts. We've also seen energy transition and decarbonisation disputes and investor-state disputes arising – in part at least – due to governments seeking to make up treasury shortfalls arising from the pandemic response.
In tech, one prominent trend is the surge in disputes concerning private capital investments in technology and digital transformation, from outsourcing disputes, data migration issues, misrepresentation claims or disputes arising from the operational impacts of regulatory change. Commercial disagreements related to software development, licensing, and technology service agreements are also on the rise, reflecting the complexities of negotiating and executing these types of projects.
You have been involved in a number of internal digital transformation initiatives for the firm. Why is it important for lawyers to be tech-savvy?
Digital tech has been changing all our lives (both personal and professional) for many years. Our clients' businesses are changing, and the legal sector is not immune to change either. It is important that we keep pace with that change to remain trusted and valued advisors to our clients. We can only do that if we invest and adopt tools which keep us delivering the most efficient and effective legal advice.
When I started out, we didn't have things like technology-assisted review or generative AI, and ultimately these are all tools that enhance our ability to deliver the best service for clients. Lawyers need to provide input on things like the functionality, usability and user experience of tech in order to ensure that the products they are using actually deliver value for clients.
How is Herbert Smith Freehills using tech to better serve its clients?
At HSF, we have a large portfolio of technology at our lawyers' disposal – varying from the full Microsoft 365 suite through to document automation tools, cutting edge e-discovery software with built in AI and machine-learning and predictive analytics tools. We also have proprietary software we've developed ourselves, including tools to robustly predict the effort and time involved in an arbitration and to take data-driven decisions on pricing and return on investment for clients pursuing particular strategies in the dispute. This allows us to be innovative with pricing and solutions for clients.
We also use specialist software to deliver our Decision Analysis service, whereby we build decision-tree models which quantify and visualise legal risk. The visuals we create demonstrate the risk profile of disputes in an intuitive way to better support client decision-making.
But tech doesn't stand still, and we constantly work to identify and test new things. I have recently been testing an in-house tool we developed using generative AI (the best-known public example of which is ChatGPT) to interrogate our data and generate information more quickly. This is a hugely exciting area, but it requires cutting through the hype and ensuring adequate controls are in place to protect ours and our clients' data, as well as ensuring the limitations of the software are well-understood to its users.
What is your favourite thing about being an arbitration lawyer?
Through advising our clients on high-stakes disputes, we are privileged to witness a captivating interplay between commercial, economic and political drivers. This is something that has always been of great interest to me – I did a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at university, and I like understanding how the work we do for our clients sits within the broader landscape.
As arbitration lawyers, we also have the joy of presenting the evidence and arguments to the decision-makers ourselves! We are particularly lucky at HSF to have four KCs in our practice, which also allows us to maintain the strong culture of doing our own advocacy.
What would you have done if you hadn't become a lawyer?
I would have fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a professional taste-tester for ice cream.