Enterprising Lawyer Q&A

Meet Joanne Wheeler, Space Lawyer

By | Jan.26.17 | Daily Dispatch, Enterprising Lawyer, Innovation, Legal Careers

What is an “enterprising lawyer”? Actually, they are easy to spot. Look for the more engaged and happy lawyers in the crowd — deeply invested in the power of the unique work they do. You probably know one — you may even be an enterprising lawyer yourself!

No “space law practice” existed when Joanne Wheeler started out, but that didn’t stop her from building a thriving practice around her passion for the final frontier. Wheeler, an expert in satellite regulation, has held posts at both the European Space Agency and Ofcom (the U.K.’s communications regulator) and currently leads Bird & Bird LLP’s satellites specialist industry initiative. A partner in the firm’s Tech & Comms group, she represents the U.K. Space Agency at United Nations space meetings and sits on the Council of UKspace. Wheeler, who was named a 2014 Financial Times Legal Innovator of the Year, is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, has been elected to the International Institute of Space Law, and chairs the International Bar Association’s Space Law Committee.

Joanne Wheeler, MBE
Partner
Bird & Bird LLP, London
University of Aberdeen, LLB, 1993
Rotterdam (Erasmus) University, LLM Law and Economics, 1994
University of Oxford, Mst Law and Economics, 1996
University of Rotterdam, LLM Law and Economics, 1996

Why did you want to be a lawyer? I was keen to explore international law — the law between states and governing cooperation. I was fascinated at the power of what could be achieved when states collaborated and diverse people worked together.

What is the focus of your personal law practice? My passion for decades: the communications and space industry.

Who was your most important mentor, and what did they teach you? I don’t think I had or have a single mentor — the subject is my mentor and I try to grow with it. I have, however, been lucky enough to meet some inspirational people at different times of my life who have influenced me. I probably have more of those people in my life now. Most are associated with or in the space industry. What they teach me is determination, innovation and collaboration.

What about the practice of law did you learn the hard way? That at the end of the day, law firms are businesses, so a lot of things must come into consideration alongside the clients, the people and the nature of the work. I haven’t learned this yet. For me, what is absolutely key is the passion for the subject, the clients and the clients’ businesses — and doing my utmost to assist. This also involves being immersed in the industry and, as much as possible, trying to be a thought leader.

Describe your firm’s Tech & Comms group. The group is comprised of 400 lawyers based across our 28 international offices. We are universally recognized as market leaders within this sector and have unrivaled experience advising on matters ranging from small, innovative projects to complex, ground-breaking transactions and disputes. Our team consists of dedicated lawyers with a particular focus on communications, devices & components, digital tech & e-commerce, social media/digital content providers and software & services, as well as a number of more specialist industries including data centers, postal and, my area, the satellite industry. 

Describe your typical client. A large innovative satellite operator, with several satellites in orbit, seeking regulatory, advocacy and commercial contract assistance. The operator may also be wishing to bring an innovative technology to market and regulations may need to be adopted or changed. Very often I need to apply regulatory principles, national, European and international law and there may be no clear solution — so I try to employ and get implemented a balanced, fair result taking several criteria into consideration.

You won the 2014 Financial Times Legal Innovator of the Year award for your work with the U.K. space industry and government as part of the IGS Restack, which has led to legislative and policy changes to encourage growth in the U.K. space industry. Can you explain this work, simply? The U.K. Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) was a government and industry collaboration to draft a 20-year business plan for the U.K. space industry. For the IGS work, I drafted and ran an industry consultation covering issues from regulation to raising finance. The responses were drafted into a report. The IGS Restack revisited that report. The IGS led to the establishment of the U.K. Space Agency. My work contributed to changes in three aspects of legislation for the benefit of the commercial industry.

2017 will see work on the Strategic Growth Partnership — a partnership between industry and government for the support of the U.K. space industry. I will draft the regulatory and spectrum proposals.

The Satellite Finance Network (SFN), of which I am proud to be the founder and co-chair, also came out of the IGS. SFN aims to support the growth of the U.K. space industry through:

  • Facilitating and attracting investment, and connecting industry players with the financial community.
  • Identifying regulatory barriers and other impediments to growth, working to create a “space friendly” and competitive regulatory environment and encouraging exporters in the areas of finance and regulation.
  • Promoting business opportunities between companies.

What has been your greatest challenge in the practice of law? Establishing and continuing to develop the practice — from nothing in the late 1990s.

I have tried to be an entrepreneur, and created a practice that did not and could not exist when I started out 25 years ago. There was no recognized “space law practice” and so I have had to feel my own way, and have probably made a lot of mistakes.

Why do you think you might be described as an “enterprising lawyerI took a subject and an industry that I was passionate about and built a practice around it; working out how law and regulation can help enable commercial solutions while protecting national interests.

Where do you think the practice of law is going? General commercial and contract law is increasingly being commoditized and undertaken within different legal models. Flexibility will be needed and specialization with innovation. Law firms will need to have an identity and sector/client focus.

Where are you going? I will continue to work closely with clients and the industry as it continues to grow and try to enable solutions and innovative technologies to be commercialized. 

What have you learned, at this point in your career, that you wish young lawyers understood? There are no short cuts. It really does come down to dedication and hard work. Choose a subject that you are enthusiastic about and go for it!

What is your favorite technology tool? My life-filled, article-full iPad. 

What is the first thing you check each morning? My kids and my BlackBerry.

Where do you turn when things go really badly? My husband and the hills. My favorite place where I feel most at home is in the mountains of the west coast of Scotland.

You can find Joanne Wheeler at @twobirdstech and at www.twobirds.com.

Read About More Enterprising Lawyers

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com; photo courtesy of Joanne Wheeler

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