Hot 100: Joanne Wheeler, CMS

CMS TMT partner Joanne Wheeler (scroll down for video interview) is in a league of her own. The space and satellite specialist’s work literally bends the earth’s boundaries and needs just as flexible a brain to comprehend.

As the leading lawyer in her field, Wheeler is involved in the Government’s 20-year vision ‘UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy’, advising on the regulatory, legal, policy and finance issues in the space and satellite sector.

Her background is three years at the European Space Agency in Paris and drafting Ofcom’s satellite filing procedures.

Joanne Wheeler

Wheeler also sits on the UN Committee for Peaceful uses of Outer Space, reporting on everything from regulations on space traffic to the missile-launching actions of North Korea.

The importance of the sector to the UK’s struggling economy is vital, says Wheeler.

“This industry is growing by nine per cent – that’s faster than the Chinese economy. This is a new area of business for us. We are stretching our model as a law firm to educate and bring work in, taking law as the facilitator.”

A big part of Wheeler’s role is trying to shape the UK’s space policy to make it the best regulated jurisdiction for clients who want to launch satellite packages.

“We are pinpointing the regulations that are hurdles to making the country a more advantageous place to do business – such as the UK’s unlimited indemnity policy. Why would a bank finance the launch of satellite in the UK, for example, when they would be liable for unlimited damages if something went wrong?”

She is particularly proud of setting up the London Satellite Finance Network – a 150-member group with £20m of Government investment to help SMEs get involved in the space industry.

Exciting projects for Wheeler come thick and fast. She advises University College London on the legal implications of its mind-blowing “beaming” virtual reality project. The theory is that virtual doctors could visit patients at home. But with innovation, comes the risk of the unknown. It raises issues of jurisdiction and liability – for example, if the doctor avatar kills the patient. These are groundbreaking challenges that lawyers such as Wheeler relish.

“I’m privileged,” says Wheeler. So are her clients.