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As the IT law machine thunders on, Richard Kemp argues that niche firms have the advantage of avoiding the overcrowded middle lane on the road to convergence. Richard Kemp is senior partner at Kemp & Co.
Life in the world of business law firms is like a three-lane motorway. In the fast lane you have the five UK juggernauts, in the slow lane you find small, specialist practices, and in the overcrowded middle lane there is a blood-bath in the making.
A number of IT law firms have been launched in recent times. How far they will go remains to be seen, but this is as dynamic an area for law firms as it is in the world of business.
Computers and communications are bringing about fundamental changes to business patterns. This is no longer bland management speak - it is going on out there in the real world. Businesses are making money from the internet. Convergence - legal work of the highest standard on computer, telecommunications, broadcasting and media/content industry issues - is happening.
So what does this mean for law firms?
First, IT now has a real impact on how law firms work. With a PC, telephone line, e-mail and a bit of typing, you can get closer to your client and provide a faster service. You can employ fewer, higher quality support staff, you do not need as much space and you can bring on-line services onto the desktop cheaply. IT enables law firms to be more efficient and effective, driving down costs, pushing up margins and providing a competitive advantage.
But all this requires management to be sympathetic to IT, and capable of delivering. While this may be easy in a small practice, in the middle lane it could prove tough.
Second, you need to focus on IT law to get it right. The holy grail for any IT law practice is convergence. For specialists in this area, the pace and scope of change in this crazy digital world is exciting, and just a bit scary.
You need to build a team familiar with, and responsive to, change, and capable of assimilating its impact on contract, competition, intellectual property and regulatory law. You need to concentrate on IT law, work with it, empathise with the clients whose business it is or who are using it to change their business, and be attentive to the detail while still keeping one eye on the bigger picture.
Third, the acid test: what do the clients think? Will they use a small, specialist practice in this area?
In my experience, the answer is unquestionably "yes", but only if they have confidence in you. You do not need to be in a large practice to carry out this work to the highest standards.
Are you at a disadvantage without a global network?
No. Do not forget the US is leading convergence, that this sort of work flows from West to East and that, if there are 30 UK firms practicing in this area, there are probably 300 in the US who will all need a UK law firm at some time.
Are you at a disadvantage by not offering a full service?
No. We focus on IT and that sends a good message to the client - we benefit a lot from a "horses for courses" ethos. All our major clients use more than one law firm, and that is something we welcome. If they only used one firm, it would not be us.
And do I believe the niche IT firms are here to stay? Absolutely.