Sitting in her new Los Angeles offices, Dominique Shelton, CIPP/US, smiles remembering where it all began. The other day, she recalls, she came across a paper she wrote somewhere during her third year of law school, circa 1990, at Georgetown University in a course on Privacy and American Law.
"I wrote this paper," she said, "on the private lives of public officials, and I laughed [when I found it recently] because even back then, even at that time, I was already fascinated by the concept of privacy."
At this point in her career, Shelton can pretty much call the shots. She's been in the game for 25 years now, she's represented high-profile clients in cases spanning the gamut of privacy and cyber security litigation. She went to Brown University for undergrad. She was named one of the most influential lawyers in digital media and e-commerce law by the Los Angeles Business Journal. And, speaking to her, it's clear she's stood in front of a judge or two in her day — and got her way.
But from her new offices at Perkins Coie, she sounds more like an exceedingly polished attorney who just landed her first big gig.
"My first day was yesterday. I still have goosebumps," she said in a recent interview. Perkins was just the move she was looking for. It has a level of "business presence pragmatism and also intellectualism that I think is absolutely crucial to be able to help clients," she said of her decision to move there. The top-line compliance approach and intellectual rigor matches what she was doing "in a microcosm," but she jumped at the opportunity to practice it globally with the firm's 29 privacy and data security attorneys.
Shelton is coming from Alston & Bird, where she was on its privacy and technology team and chair of its Ad-tech Privacy and Advertising Data Compliance Practice. At Perkins, Shelton will co-chair the firm's own brand-new ad-tech team as well as serve on its Privacy and Data Security team. In both ad tech and privacy, and the space the two overlap, there's plenty of work to be done.
"Last year, I think $229 billion dollars were spent on digital ad tech and digital advertising. Much of that spend is happening, unfortunately, without the intervention of compliance attorneys," Shelton said. "And it's really important now with the GDPR coming, that and U.S. enforcement actions, that companies pay attention to this."
Beyond that, there are hundreds of class-action suits happening in the U.S., largely in California alone, and companies are landing on the front pages of newspapers — C-suite members stepping down as papers hit doorsteps.
"There's an opportunity for lawyers in this space who know the area and have been focused on it for some time to really add value to companies at a bunch of different levels," she said, "to help board members so they are not accused later of breaching their fiduciary duty and also to help protect and keep those trainings under privilege."
Beyond that, having attorneys that understand both the digital advertising and privacy ecosystems is key for a company getting sued; Shelton saw that first hand. And it's the expertise in both that drew her to Perkins Coie.
"I knew I needed to be on a platform that had those strengths already," she said, adding that the firm has a deep bench. And that's necessary right now, she said, because hundreds of millions of dollars are often at stake in these privacy and data security cases. She sees the landscape now as being comparable to the shakeup of SOX compliance back in the day.
Undoubtedly, the crises — a characterization that might elicit a cringe or a nod, depending on who you ask — the ad tech world is facing right now present a challenge, but listening to her discuss the issues, one gets the sense Shelton welcomes that sort of thing.
"I like pushing the envelope forward, I like staying on edge," she said.
The thing is, there will always need to be advertising and targeting in digital transactions. That's not going anywhere. And if you eliminate the digital economy, "What do we really have left?" What has to happen is balance, she said.
But she sees that as possible. She doesn't think it has to be either consumer protection or successful commerce.
"With draconian penalties coming out in the EU," she said, "this forces the dialogue and forces the discussion, which I think is very healthy for business to become part of ... and explain the benefits of what they are bringing in terms of economic resources."
Take for example, a small village where women sewing quilts are able to participate in the global economy via a payment app on their phone: "We don't want to destroy all that burgeoning business, but we don't want to do away with privacy rights altogether, you don't want a situation where users' information to transact e-commerce is misused or abused and the most vulnerable in our society are affected."
And that shift we're in, the tension between finding the sweet spot in the middle, is what excited Shelton.
"I haven't spoken to a client who isn't interested in figuring out the path forward," she said. "The approach needs to be helping clients understand where the guide posts are. It's not that industry is trying to evade the compliance function, it's that they don't know what the issues are. That's where I feel lawyers have a very important job."
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