By Michael Petro, originally published in Buffalo Business First on 6/27/16.
Business background puts attorneys in clients’ shoes
When Jennifer Beckage hears the story of how her Phillips Lytle colleague, Brendan Lillis, came to practice law, she’s reminded of her own path in the legal industry.
They had similar backgrounds in business before becoming attorneys and leveraged that experience in their legal practices.
Beckage is a partner in the business and litigation group at Phillips Lytle, while Lillis practices corporate, intellectual property and patent prosecution law. But they make it a point to get together to handle a subject for clients that they know well: cyber and data security.
And although they may see things differently at times, they get it when it comes to data and “speak the language,” according to Lillis.
It’s one thing to know the applicable laws; it’s quite another to understand technology and have a feel for how to protect an organization, and that’s where their experience really helps, Beckage said.
“As former business owners, we know you want to spend your money on growing your business, not on lawyers. So we work with our clients when we provide legal advice to understand their business needs. We can really appreciate it because we have been in their shoes,” she said.
Cyber and data security is an ever-evolving realm with disparate rules across the board, Lillis said. There are obligations that apply in different geographic jurisdictions between states and countries but also between sectors, depending on the type of data and information, whether it’s personal, health or financial.
“There are a lot of moving parts so it really comes down to being able to understand the business, first and foremost,” he said.
Beckage owned a tech-based company in Western New York in the late 1990s, a very different time in the industry. It was before such platforms as Facebook and Google and when AOL was the gateway to the internet. One couldn’t put something online without knowing code, she said, and websites consisted of flash splash pages and scrolling text.
She was part of the industry’s first wave of workers who focused on providing a tool so that someone who didn’t know code could put something online and manage the content on their website. That provided a more hands-on experience in the website-development process, she said.
The company was acquired in 2000 by a large, publicly traded telecommunications firm, which retained her as vice president of operations for online services in 11 states. Beckage said she made many of the same determinations that corporate and labor lawyers make every day in their jobs.
“Basically, I was the client,” she said.
After a few years, however, she decided to go to law school and focus on technology and business disputes. These days she deals with software contracts, privacy or security issues, data breaches, cyber attacks and the theft of confidential information by employers. Also, how to leverage technology for e-discovery and collection and preservation of documents and information in an investigation.
In her previous position, Beckage helped businesses grow by leveraging the internet and maintaining an online presence. Now she uses technology to provide legal advice as part of a strategic approach to problem solving for clients.
“From soup to nuts, I’ve seen what businesses have to deal with,” she said.
Lillis, meanwhile, grew up in the family restaurant and had his first real exposure to technology while running the IT side of the business. He attended Syracuse University for computer engineering and earned a tech degree while owning a paving business. Later, as a student at SUNY Buffalo Law School, he became interested in patent law.
After graduation, Lillis joined a midsized law firm and assisted on the IT side, which included designing and building websites. He said he got a feel for data, privacy policies and terms of service, as well as for trying to keep all those in line with storing information from customers and prospective clients.
Several years later, he joined the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a patent examiner in Virginia. His three-year tenure there included a sizable amount of data security work. He was intrigued by the massive amounts of data the government receives and said it’s as susceptible to a breach as other sectors.
“No one is safe. It’s crazy,” he said.
He eventually decided to return to private practice in Buffalo and focus on the business side of the law, joining Phillips Lytle as an associate. In his practice, Lillis deals with recurring issues surrounding data privacy, data notification and breaches and website privacy policies.
“There seems to be a need for most businesses, and I think it is an area of expertise we can fill,” Lillis said. “Now we’re trying to take that next step and trying to encourage our existing clients to take a more proactive approach.”
From startups to larger companies, he tells clients that each stage of business brings different needs and concerns. Then he helps create a strategy that incorporates the things that are most important to them.
The smallest company, for example, isn’t going to want or need every protection possible nor could it afford it, according to Lillis.
The Buffalo law firm takes a team approach with clients to make sure everyone is on the same page, Beckage said.
First up is a good, hard look at a company’s data. Then lawyers will discuss various issues with the client to determine the right approach, which is sometimes done in stages.
“We understand that this is important, but we know they have other business demands,” she said.
Lillis said he looks to bridge the gap between the client’s IT team or IT service provider and the business owners, who may not have a strong background in technology.
“Sometimes we’re able to speak both levels,” he said.
He and Beckage said that getting out in the community to attend events and seminars is important, such as last month’s “Security: The Next Frontier” CLE at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.
Every business has unique needs and rules that apply to them, according to Beckage. She and Lillis cite recent data breaches in the headlines and point to common areas of vulnerability, legally and client-imposed security obligations and best practices.
Lillis said he and Beckage tailor their talks to the particular audience, adding that companies in various industries face different issues and have varying amounts of staff to deal with them.
“To see the entrepreneurial spirit and how technology has changed is fascinating,” Beckage said. “Back in the late ‘90s, you had technology companies and then you had brick-and-mortar businesses. Now the technology is wrapped up into the business. It’s very different just in the last 20 years how that’s evolved. It’s exciting to see that transition and what the next 20 years will look like.”
Don’t be intimidated by technology, she advises clients. It remains rooted in the fundamentals of 20 years ago and the same issues will always be there:
Who owns it?
How is it protected?
Who has access?
“It’s just that things now are bigger, faster and more powerful, but it’s the same concepts,” Beckage said.