Building inclusive digital societies

Read Time
5 mins
Published Date
Dec 11, 2023
Alumnus Jeremy Ng always wanted an impactful career where he could improve people’s lives. Now he’s in a position to do so at the World Bank.

Jeremy Ng says he went into law for the most mundane of reasons: it was what his elder brother had chosen. “We were both good in humanities – my favourite subject growing up was English literature,” he says.

In another life, he might have been an English professor looking at societal change through the writing of others. Instead, he finds himself working toward that change as a consultant to the World Bank’s Legal Vice Presidency, specialising in technology and innovation.

Law, he said, is a “pretty common pathway” for someone analytically minded who wants to work with language. In his second year at the University of Cambridge, he discovered a passion for international law: his undergraduate dissertation was on the interaction between investment law and human rights. According to Jeremy, an early interest in human rights stemmed from the fact that “a lot of my generation are really attuned to the social implications of what we do and want to build careers around creating meaningful change.”

Unclear on how he would achieve that goal, he applied to A&O, partly due to the firm’s reputation for innovation. He was among the August 2019 cohort, qualified into the Derivatives and Structured Finance (DSF) group in 2021, and remained with the firm as an associate until July 2022. Throughout this period, he remained involved in human rights through pro bono work across women’s rights, indigenous rights, and environmental protection.

Covid-19 didn’t interrupt his progression as much as offer him new opportunities. Pandemic restrictions meant limited opportunities for an international posting, so he was seconded to Fuse, the firm’s technology innovation hub in London, and became its first trainee: “It completely changed my career.”

An amazing mentor

Jeremy pays fulsome credit to Shruti Ajitsaria, partner and head of Fuse, who was “an amazing mentor”, giving him a lot of responsibility for a trainee at that level. “She really showed me what was possible for innovative lawyers who are willing to think differently.” While working on cutting edge LegalTech mandates, Jeremy was exposed to a style of work different to the traditional transactional lawyer’s role: “I thought ‘I could make a career of this’.”

Although leaving A&O was difficult, pursuing an LLM at New York University (NYU) School of Law afforded Jeremy the opportunity to combine his newfound interest in technology with a lifelong affinity for the public good, taking courses such as the Digital Governance and Human Rights seminar convened by former UN special rapporteur Philip Alston.

He packed a lot into his time at NYU. “It’s not uncommon to see people juggling multiple commitments,” he says, “given that everyone wants to make the most out of the year-long master’s programme.” While at NYU, he was a Human Rights Scholar at the Centre for Global Justice & Human Rights, a Research Assistant at Guarini Global Law & Technology, and a Salzburg Cutler Fellow.

Following his graduation from the LLM programme, he joined the World Bank as an International Finance and Development Fellow, a position funded by NYU. This led in August 2023 to his current role as a consultant in the World Bank’s Legal Vice Presidency.

Jeremy describes his current role as “very specialised”. The World Bank has two goals: ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity in a sustainable way. Much of its work is in digital development, where the Bank funds projects that create digital inclusion and support responsible digital transformation. Areas of focus include internet connectivity, data infrastructures, and digital identity.

In his new position in the Legal Vice Presidency, Jeremy supports this work through the provision of advice on legal frameworks related to ongoing digital development projects (ranging from data protection to cybersecurity), and analytical work involving legal and policy research on digital economy issues such as AI regulation, content moderation, and data governance.

Increasingly, the human rights impacts of these digital projects underpins much of Jeremy’s work in this area, whether it’s looking into accountability frameworks for harmful content hosted on online platforms, issues of fairness and algorithmic bias, or changes to basic privacy settings that big tech firms are trying to push through across the world.

Human rights principles

Funding for such work comes from mechanisms such as the Bank’s Human Rights, Inclusion and Empowerment Trust Fund, which seeks to strengthen knowledge and application of human rights principles in World Bank operations around the world.

Although the Bank is not a human rights organisation per se, Jeremy says “there’s an increasing recognition within the Bank that citizens will only participate in an inclusive digital society that respects fundamental rights.”

Jeremy has come into the World Bank as a new president, Ajay Banga, begins his five-year term with a strong focus on the climate crisis. Says Jeremy: “His priority is mobilising the resources to support sustainable energy. There’s still a large funding gap that needs to be bridged to meet the Paris targets.”

For Jeremy, however, it’s the AI “revolution” that holds his attention. “Increasingly we see governments deploying AI in the public sector for various reasons such as streamlining operations and reducing costs, but for all the benefits of this transformational technology, there are very real risks.”

These can include human rights violations through reinforcing discrimination, undermining privacy, and violating basic principles regarding transparency, accountability and due process. As a result, “the World Bank is working hard to ensure such risks are accounted for.”

Real strength from differences

Throughout history, technological progress has created inequality and power asymmetries. An area of concern for Jeremy is how to distribute the gains from today’s “insane level” of technological advancement.

In one key area, the World Bank walks the talk, as Jeremy sees it. He says: “Diversity is inbuilt as the Bank draws staff from around the world and brings them to D.C. The differences in outlook, culture, language and experience is a real strength. It makes working here such a pleasure.”

If Jeremy were to move back into the private sector, it would likely be into a legal or policy role in the tech industry. He says: “The people who really shape the human rights outcomes of new technologies such as AI are the software engineers and product managers who build and design them. I’m interested in seeing what it’s like on the inside, where these decisions are made.

“People my age want to make an impact. Sometimes this means making multiple jumps to get where we want to be in our careers.

“Although I’m happy with how my post- A&O career has panned out, I was sad to leave the firm. I enjoyed working in DSF; they are some of my closest friends anywhere. Coming back to visit the London office, bumping into people – it’s wonderful and I’m so grateful to A&O for giving that to me. I have fond memories of my time there.”

Migration, music and a second family

Family is important to Jeremy. He was born in Hong Kong to Malaysian Chinese parents who had themselves moved around Southeast Asia. He left Hong Kong at 18 for Cambridge, where he experienced a “huge culture shock,” which he says “is one of the reasons I was so active in DE&I during my time at A&O.”

He appreciated how global the firm was, and how cosmopolitan his colleagues were as a result. “Many of my teammates in DSF had spent time in Hong Kong on secondment and so we had common ground to connect over.”

Thanks to his musical father, Jeremy and his brother learned piano from an early age, and as teenagers they picked up bass guitar and drums respectively. In his high school years, Jeremy played bass guitar in a band, confessing: “We only really had two songs in our repertoire: ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ and the Metallica instrumental ‘Orion’.”

At A&O he found a new family among the team at DSF, notably partner Guy Antrobus, counsel Tess Khoo, senior associates Ben Berry, Vicky White and Sam Clitheroe, and associate Abbie True. They remain very close – “lifelong friends.”

“We see each other as often as possible,” he says. The wedding of Ben, his former trainer, in September 2023 drew many of the group to the West Country, reuniting with alumni from the team stretching over the past decade. “Really good fun,” says Jeremy.

He recently reconnected with fellow alumnus Suril Patel, now VP of Partnerships at legal AI startup Harvey, to discuss developments in generative AI for legal services. Coincidentally, because of Covid-19, Suril had been one of the first partners Jeremy spoke to in person in DSF: reconnecting with him was a full-circle moment that “really shows the power of the A&O Alumni Network.”

 

Reconnect with Jeremy Ng

Jeremy Ng

Legal Consultant, Technology & Innovation at the World Bank
A&O: 2019-2022

There's an increasing recognition within the Bank that citizens will only participate in an inclusive digital society that respects fundamental rights.

Content Disclaimer
This content was originally published by Allen & Overy before the A&O Shearman merger