Regulating nanotechnology & the quality of corporate legal advice

An interview with

Dr Steven Vaughan


Steven Vaughan researches the legal profession, corporate finance and environmental law. He spent a decade as a solicitor in the City of London, before becoming a legal academic. He has advised the European Parliament and worked with the British Standards Institute to develop the world’s first publicly accredited standard for companies on the regulation of nanotechnologies. He is currently an ESRC Future Research Leader, working on a funded 3 year project that explores the nature and extent of advice provided by corporate lawyers.

TheLawMap: From being a City solicitor to an academic, what drew you to legal academia and research?

I got my training contract at the end of the second year of my law degree. I loved university and had always wanted to do a PhD. I did my training, qualified and then moved law firms. I so enjoyed being a solicitor - the pace of transactions, my deals being in the papers, my wonderful colleagues (and the fantastic salary...) - but after a while I wanted a change. So I started my PhD and carried on working as a solicitor part time for my firm. After a few years, I had to make the decision: either stay in academia full time, or go back to practice, as trying to do both was killing me. I chose academia and love the freedom that I have to pursue my own research interests and to inculcate in students the same sense of wonder about the law and society that was given to me when I was a student.

TheLawMap: Why was there a requirement for a publicly accredited standard for companies on the regulation of nanotechnologies?

Nanotech is the ability to engineer on the scale of the tiny (at billionths of a metre). It's a field of exciting possibilities. However, the law is often slow to keep up with scientific progress. For large companies with their own in-house lawyers, or with the money to pay for external law firms, knowing how the law applies to their products, designs, employees etc is one thing. For small companies, for start-ups, it's quite another. The publicly accredited standard, published by the British Standards Institute, is a free-to-use guide on how the law in England & Wales applies to nano, where the gaps are and what might be the challenges as regards compliance. I was lucky enough to be part of the team that helped to write the standard, led by my colleague Professor Robert Lee and working with Dr Elen Stokes of Cardiff University.

TheLawMap: Would you elaborate on the aims and objectives of your ongoing research exploring the nature, and extent of advice provided by corporate lawyers?
For the last 20 years, there has been academic interest in exactly what it is that corporate lawyers do: do they just give clients legal advice, or is there something more? If, as many people claim, there is not much law in corporate legal practice, what is so special about corporate lawyers? In a post financial crisis world, I am also interested in how corporate lawyers and corporate clients perceive the lawyer-client relationship. Do clients want or expect their lawyers to advise them, say, on risk? Do corporate lawyers feel responsibility for the actions their clients take? These are the sorts of questions my project seeks to answer.

TheLawMap: What are the principal challenges in maintaining a high standard of legal ethics in an increasingly diversified legal profession?

We know, from empirical legal research, that context is one of the most important factors as regards legal ethics. So, where you work, who you work for, how your organisation pays you and gives you bonuses, the attitudes of the senior management team etc etc - all these things matter. The profession has diversified significantly and challenges include an increasingly globalised legal services market (where norms in Country A may be very different to norms in Country B) and increased competition for legal services. The size of the profession also poses a challenge to the legal regulators who are, I think, understaffed and under resourced.

TheLawMap: In global terms, what concerns you the most in relation to environmental laws?

Environmental law is a hodge podge of different, overlapping legal regimes. And much of it is reactive, rather than proactive. We also spend far too long on the politics and lobbying of causes.

TheLawMap: If you could change something within the legal profession what would that be?
Two words: legal aid. The Coalition Government is denying access to justice to some of those most in need. This has to stop.

With special thanks to Dr Steven Vaughan for his valuable time. He can be followed on Twitter and interacted with via Linkedin. In 2012, Steven gave a talk at the Hay Festival on controlling risks to the public from nanotechologies. A recording of his talk can be heard here on the Hay Festival website and downloaded as a podcast.