29 January 2001
So will there be a recession this year in the US, which will impact upon UK and European technology companies, would-be investors in the market and indeed technology lawyers? Who knows?
Over the last few years, UK technology lawyers have been particularly active. They have witnessed the flood of dotcom start-ups with business plans in hand which need support, and they have seen their lawyers as the first port of call for professional advice. This was in stark contrast to the "old economy" model, where the accountant would be the entrepreneur's first appointed adviser. As a result of the avalanche of start-ups and of this new approach, many technology lawyers who had previously practised as IT or intellectual property (IP) lawyers were somewhat bemused to see and hear of the self-reinvention by many lawyers as "e-commerce" lawyers. Everyone has to adapt to the market and, in any event, the phrase means different things to different people. Then there was the Y2K issue to deal with which, as we all know, did not amount to much in terms of major litigation. Nevertheless, during the several months - and in some cases days - leading up to the year change, there was a tremendous amount of activity.
All of this was set against the backdrop of an economic boom, which in part was fuelled by new technologies. So before Nasdaq crashed, times had never been so good for technology lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the current climate, when there has been a series of high-profile dotcom failures, the capital markets have retrenched, a growing number of initial public offerings (IPOs) have been scrapped or delayed and the number of start-ups knocking at the door has diminished, where does all that leave technology lawyers? Ultimately, some firms will let some of their lawyers go. Others say it depends on what sectors the clients operate in and what areas of expertise the technology lawyer has. For example, on both sides of the pond you can find emerging companies with new technologies or products in an immature market, which are still able to obtain funding even though they may have to work a little harder to find it. This may be the case for companies with internet security-related offerings. Similarly, while there has been detected a certain amount of scepticism regarding application service provider (ASP) offerings, companies doing business with them will keep many technology lawyers active and, if in the future when there is the expected consolidation in the ASP marketplace, there will also be work for M&A colleagues.
Major companies still have large procurement budgets (even if they may be smaller than last year's) and need expertise when contracting with vendors of technology products and services. Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), reseller, joint venture, collaboration arrangements and other strategic alliance work are still commonplace, but many corporates are still anxiously seeking ways to expand their European sales channels and spread the risk and costs of product development.
Do not forget those "bricks and mortar" clients, who not only see technology as a means of increasing profits, but also as an effective way of reducing costs. They still require expert advice. In addition, the venture funds still have capital to invest and new venture funds are still emerging. Indeed, notwithstanding the Nasdaq fall in April, many law firms with a technology focus still experienced record increases in revenue and profits last year.
So while the market may not be as buoyant as it was this time last year, this year may not be as bleak as some would have us believe.
Barry Fishley is a partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges.
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