Out with the old

It was an obvious candidate for Tulkinghorn. The Lawyer's curmudgeonly diarist could not resist running a caption competition using the picture of Field Fisher Waterhouse partner Mark Abell in a dentist's chair with a grinning orthodontist at his side.

It was one of the more outlandish publicity shots to turn up at The Lawyer's office – especially as, until recently, Field Fisher did not seek attention of any kind, let alone expose one of its most senior partners to ridicule from both in and outside the firm.

Just three years ago Field Fisher was in the dark ages compared with other firms which had responded to the increasingly commercial world of modern law practice.

The firm had come some way since the early 1980s when the partners had to rush out to buy a new sofa for their reception because the firm was taking part in its first beauty parade.

But sources say that on arrival at the firm you still had to ring a bell to get the attention of the staff, who would be talking among themselves in the reception.

But after a major overhaul of its image and strategy, Field Fisher now offers itself as an innovator in the fast-moving world of intellectual property and IT.

It claims to be the UK's biggest “one-stop shop” for IP work and, with its Incubator website, also claims the first all-in-one internet service for setting up an e-commerce business (The Lawyer, 6 September). And the firm has announced that it intends to continue its recent spree of aggressive recruiting from rival firms (The Lawyer, 20 September).

Abell, head of IP and IT explains the firm's change in thinking: “Historically we've been a firm that shunned any kind of publicity. Five years ago the firm didn't tell the public who we acted for, let alone about the transactions we did.

“The belief was that if you simply provided good service then clients would come to you. But that clearly isn't the case any more.

“We, like all other law firms, were acquainted with the rude reality of life in the 1980s and 1990s when clients became less loyal, more discerning and more sophisticated in identifying their own requirements for legal advice and the ability of a firm to provide them.”

The firm's previous managing partner, John Nelson-Jones, had already seen the need for change. Abell says Nelson-Jones did not use a computer and had said the time for him to step down would come when everyone else in the firm had one.

The big change finally came 18 months ago.

Nelson-Jones and the firm's then management team, who were in their sixties, were replaced by 50-year-old John Price as managing partner and a number of 40-somethings led by Abell, who took on the practice development element of Nelson-Jones' job.

Price stresses that the new team was the last step in a period of “evolutionary change”.

“There was the recognition by the old managing partner that the firm had to move on and that partners had to take part in selling the firm,” says Price. He stresses that there was “no night of the long knives” and the new team was coached by the retiring partners during a year-long changeover.

The firm addressed both reality and perception. First, it decided to concentrate its business on four core areas – IP/IT, finance and banking, property, and corporate. And, like a number of other firms, it rebranded, employing a full-time marketing manager, replacing its stale brochures, and ripping out the old reception for a bright, client-friendly feel.

It also changed the way it made decisions, splitting operations and strategy between two boards and encouraging partners who were, says Abell, “perhaps too comfortable” to get out into the market and “sell the firm”.

Abell says it was a difficult process, but Price corrects him, saying: “It wasn't difficult; it was long. We don't want to impose things on partners. We encourage them to participate, and there was extensive consultation.

“We have one or two people who are quite individualistic, and even they were persuaded of the logic for change.”

Head of IT and online Michael Chissick, Field Fisher's youngest equity partner at 34, says: “One of the key things was the reduction of the average age of the management team, when John took over from people who were about to retire. They are much more open to new ideas. The rebrand, the new products we are launching, which are very cutting edge, the emphasis on e-commerce and new technology, have all come from them.”

It is clear that Abell is the driving force behind the firm's modernisation. He talks with an almost religious zeal about recruiting people who “share the vision”, and the “electric atmosphere of anticipation” in the firm. “There is a sense of elation that something new is going to happen each week,” he enthuses.

Abell heads the IP/IT practice, which is at the heart of the firm's strategy. Yet when he took over the practice nearly seven years ago, he thought it was a “poisoned chalice”.

“There was a partner running it who had no appetite. It was a critically ill part of the firm and we had to decide whether to kill or resurrect it,” he says.

He agreed to run the practice on the condition that he could turn it into a one-stop shop, ranging from patents and licensing to litigation.

“But isn't a one-stop shop a bit of a…”

“…cliche?” Abell finishes my question. “Yes, I suppose it is, but it saves clients money and they are not wasting valuable management time juggling legal advisers. People start using the one-stop shop for one service but within six or 12 months a large number of them start using the rest of the service.”

As managing partner, Price seems to oversee the firm's overall direction and the activities of his younger partners.

“What John brings to the table is the ability to cut through the crap and look at the bigger picture,” says Abell. “Previously management tended to get too involved in detail like the colour of napkins at client receptions, and that doesn't happen anymore.”

It is hard to get an informed outside view on the changes at the firm, because – unusual for today's volatile market – no partners have left in the last three years. “No-one leaves,” says Chissick, admitting that this makes Field Fisher sound like The Firm of John Grisham's novel.

Industry sources say Field Fisher has been successful in reinventing itself from a “very conservative, traditional firm with a surprisingly impressive client list” that was held back because it was dominated by a few powerful older partners.

Abell uses the phrase “core areas” with emphasis throughout the conversation, almost as if we are all meant to join in with the chant. But despite its stress on IP and IT work, the firm remains “full service”, with areas like tax and pensions supporting the main practices as well as doing their own business.

Price says: “We still practise other areas, which is where we think our competitors have got it wrong, though the focus is very much on the core areas for recruitment and marketing purposes.”

Chissick adds: “Where someone like Bird & Bird is an IP firm, we are a full-service firm and we do a lot of work in areas like corporate and tax. We are not just a niche firm, and we are competing head-to-head with Bird & Bird but we have a broader base.”

He cites Thomas Cook as a strong corporate client that has increasingly used the firm for other services.

The strategy appears to be paying dividends, with the firm growing to 60 partners and nearly doubling revenues from £15m to £28.5m over three years.

Some sources question whether Field Fisher has a strong enough corporate practice compared with firms like SJ Berwin, Berwin Leighton or Travers Smith Braithwaite. “They have done well in reinventing themselves until now, but where do they go from here?” says a legal analyst who questions whether the corporate department's concentration on the public sector fits with the firm's core areas.

Abell says the firm will grow by hiring lawyers – particularly in high-tech corporate work – and merging with smaller firms, as in last year's union with media and communications practice Allison & Humphries. Field Fisher is not looking for a major merger partner, and claims to have turned down four US suitors.

Rather than trying to buy in business, Abell says: “We hire quality people who are undervalued and frustrated at the firms where they are.” This policy has made for some rancorous recruitments, which helped diminish the firm's previous low profile.

Paul Barton, yet to leave Simmons & Simmons, earned the displeasure of Simmons when he claimed it did not value IT (The Lawyer, 30 August). And there was no love lost between Field Fisher and SJ Berwin over the exit of patents specialist John Olsen (The Lawyer, 30 March).

Field Fisher is in the much-debated tier of medium-size firms that are examining their future as the market consolidates (see pages 12-13). Abell believes the firm has found a place between the big players and the niche practices.

“We see that there will always be a place for high-quality medium-sized firms that have a real focus and strategy. If you don't have all the resources of Clifford Chance or Linklaters you can't afford to use the resources you do have by chasing shadows,” he says.

Ten recent clients

BBC – acted on launch of BBC Parliament, the cable and digital television channel

Bollywood Eros Network – acted on launch of first digital satellite television channel aimed at the UK's south Asian community

Boo.com – advised on major European e-commerce launch

ICI – acted on property aspects of corporate deal to sell UK utilities and services

Nationwide Building Society – acted on £7.1m loans secured on its portfolio of properties

Orange – advised on strategy for new mobile telecoms system

One2One – advised on outsourcing of transmission masts

RSL Communications – advised on $100m (£62.5m) acquisition of Motorola's European cellular business and acquisition of Telecom West

Royal Mail – advised on television sponsorship deal

Voila Ltd – acted on £4m franchisee buy-in of 36 Pierre Victoire restaurants from Grant Thornton