At the Intersection of Business and Law

In 2021, an incredible 2.5 quintillion bytes of data was created each day, and in the last two years alone, 90 percent of the world’s data was created. Despite data’s importance, a recent study of Fortune 1000 executives found that only 30 percent of those surveyed have a well-articulated data strategy for their company.

As students from the Raymond A. Mason School of Business graduate and transition into their professional careers, they will interact with Big Data every day. Depending on what career path they pursue, technical data analytic skills may not be required in order for them to be successful, but understanding the legal implications and risk that big data can bring to an organization will be critical.

Iria Giuffrida is Professor of Practice of Law at William & Mary’s Law School and Visiting Faculty for Business Law at the Mason School. She also serves as the Deputy Director for William & Mary’s Center for Legal and Court Technology (CLCT) where she is responsible for conducting research about the legal implications of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data and more. She believes Big Data will influence any business path a student chooses to follow and hopes to encourage her students to peak into the legal world through that lens.

“There isn’t an aspect of our modern life that isn’t, in a way, connected to this kind of technology, and my business students will have to relate to it. Some will leverage it to build or expand their businesses,” she said. “But data carries a significant component of responsibility. We train our students at the business school to have a sense of ownership and accountability for their decisions—and there are certain decisions they should not take without first educating themselves on what the risks are.”

The Role of Risk in Big Data

Giuffrida is responsible for teaching undergraduates the Legal Environment of Business which is an introduction to core legal concepts for business leaders. She also teaches Business Law which is a required course for Master of Accounting (MAcc) students, and an elective for those enrolled in the residential Master of Business Administration (FTMBA) program.

During both courses, Giuffrida introduces students to the idea of risk in two ways: the legal implications of how data is being collected and used, and the risk of choosing poor legal counsel or omitting legal from major business decisions.

She encourages students to think about business opportunities with a strong consideration towards the legal risk component because when they enter the real world, it will be their responsibility to ask questions.

“I need to ring a couple of alarm bells for them,” Giuffrida says. “How is data being collected? Are you inheriting biases in the data sets that will be entrenched in your services as you try to bring them to market? If so, how can you minimize that risk? What is it going to mean for your business if this kind of risk is embedded in your solution as you bring it to market?”

Giuffrida admits she often brings in her own biases into the conversation. She practiced as a commercial litigator for ten years in London after earning her PhD in law. She is admitted to practice in the State of New York, is a Solicitor in England and Wales and has also qualified as a Solicitor in the Republic of Ireland.

“William & Mary attracts a core group of students that share similar values even though their professional objectives are very different. The diversity of the student body is representative of the diversity you find in business, and I owe my students a lot because they ask questions about issues that with my biases, I don’t see. The diversity of perspectives contributes immensely to the learning experience. This is an important piece of a very complex puzzle of how we build good businesses,” she said.

The Risk of Legal Representation

The other aspect of risk that Giuffrida introduces through her teachings is the importance of including lawyers and legal counsel in the decision-making process. She says it is critically important for future business leaders to understand that there are unknown risks embedded in any project, initiative, or decision, and they need input from someone else to help quantify those risks.

“I don’t want my business students to become legal experts,” she clarifies. “That is not their job. I help them work through hypothetical scenarios where they are always the business person rather than asking them to be the lawyer. It is the lawyer’s job to present the options to their client, but the decision ultimately rests with the client. I want to educate my students on that relationship.”

Giuffrida also wants her students to understand how best to select legal representation and to identify representation that is well-trained in the risk implications of emerging technologies and Big Data.

“One way or another, each of my students will need to retain a lawyer. There are any number of law firms out there that bring something different to the table so how do you select the right legal service for your specific business needs?”

Unfortunately, she says, her profession is relatively proud of its ignorance about technology.

“Lawyers will say, ‘I can barely switch on my computer.’ My students, when they are in the role of client, will need better than that and I teach them to expect more than that. I always suggest they hire and seek the advice from lawyers who help them think through strategy which may well involve the legal risks that come with data,” she explained.

Networking to Build Future Businesses

Giuffrida believes that ingenuity and innovation are what distinguishes our species, and the pace at which we are experiencing change in this moment is unique in history.

“What excites me about the research and work I do is that we don’t even know what the job market will look like in three years’ time. I want my students to not be intimidated by that, but to be excited about it,” she said. “I would like my students to consider this as an incredible opportunity that they can live up to and push forward, so long as they get the right support.”

The key to that support, she says, can be found right here at William & Mary.

“A business leader needs to have a good team behind themselves, and during their time at William & Mary, some of those relationships are budding and forming. My hope is that my students enter the job market knowing that they’ve created very strong relationships with alumni, current students, and professors. There is a network available that will support them as they transition into their careers.”