TECHNOLOGY MEDIA & TELECOMS
11 December 2000
Last month, The Lawyer revealed that Slaughter and May was capitalising on the technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) boom by establishing its first-ever sector-specific practice. But is it too late? Last week, the new economy was ousted from the FTSE 100. The revised rankings will see TMT darlings Sema, Baltimore Technologies and Bookham Technology all suffer relegation. Everyone knows that the investor-TMT love affair is over, but when major international groups such as Sema start feeling the pinch, it makes you wonder whether Slaughters is guilty of the most heinous of crimes - not only jumping on the bandwagon, but jumping on one that is falling apart.
At first glance, the revised rankings play havoc with how top-tier client bases are defined; after all, firms stake their reputations on the blue-chip companies they act for. The idea is that, by association, firms will also build up a blue-chip reputation. Not only will the client list speak for itself, but the work will be more demanding and complex, and therefore more profitable. Lovells, for instance, may have advised on only three initial public offerings (IPOs) between January 1999 and June 2000, but all of them were FTSE 100 companies.
But Wednesday's announcement has changed this. Although Granada and South African Breweries are still riding high, Baltimore - another Lovells client - is out. Meanwhile, Bookham is a Brobeck Hale and Dorr client, and after Sema's lengthy panel review, you cannot help but wonder if Bird & Bird's Sema win over Nabarro Nathanson is losing some of its bite.
Yet is a FTSE 100 ranking the only way a client can be defined? Some TMT companies regularly move in and out of the top 100 and it would be futile to try to classify them on this alone. Baltimore, for instance, has been acting like the most inconsistent of football clubs, having been relegated twice and promoted twice. There are also a host of TMT companies that are managing to push on through the murk. Last week alone saw the announcement of two global deals: AT&T's historic entry into China via an alliance with Shanghai Symphony Telecommunications, and China Telecom's possible IPO. No industry that is dead in the water can boost that level of deal.
The other point worth making concerns the firms themselves. Slaughters already has a blue-chip reputation. It is not changing its name to sandm.com, advocating flexible dress-down or employing a 50-strong marketing team to "utilise brand awareness". Instead, it is servicing major clients such as Psion, whose intended IPO is keeping everyone in a state of excitement. Likewise old economy client Blue Circle is moving into new economy work. And if a sector-specific practice group keeps clients like that happy, so be it.
Yet what about Brobecks, which has seen its much-vaunted TMT client list take a bashing? It has recently become known for great technology deals, but hardly plays in the same ballpark as Slaughters. Not only is Bookham dropping out, but QXL.com - which has seen its share value plummet by a staggering 98 per cent - has been deleted from the techmark 100. But on the up side, there is Autonomy, whose upward star has yet to falter and is a new entrant into the FTSE 100. In other words, for every down there is an up. For example, NTL may have seen its share price shrink from a peak of $110 (£76.58) to $28 (£19.50), but fellow telecoms giant Nokia has forecast that its revenues will grow by up to 35 per cent over the next two years. The telecoms industry may have an on-off relationship with investors, but it is still going strong.
Blue-chip client bases are what everyone wants. But an FTSE 100 ranking is not the only indicator of performance. Of course, everyone is secretly hoping that one of their TMT clients becomes the next Microsoft, but alongside this search for the golden egg is the need to develop a practice that will allow for relationships across the board. As stocks continue their age-old up-and-down movements, particularly in a sector as volatile and attractive as TMT, there will always be an argument for finding a profitable balance somewhere in the middle.
Abigail Townsend, senior reporter, email@example.com