Insider's guide to the digital galaxy

According to pundits, e-commerce experts are few and far between. Mark Brandon examines industry's views as to which firms are scaling the heights

'Good e-commerce lawyers are rarer than hen's teeth.' That is, according to one head of department at a major City law firm which, in common with most of its rivals, is trying to recruit lawyers who can deal with the boom in new media work.

New media can potentially cover so many disciplines – traditional media, internet, computer games, e-commerce, IT and telecoms – that the ideal new media lawyer needs to have a wide variety of skills to deal with the challenges of the digital revolution.

The sector has been characterised by a great deal of movement of partners between firms in recent months. Richard Lister went from Berwin Leighton to Freshfields in July, while in August, Ashley Winton left niche .com practice Kemp & Co in Osborne Clarke and Paul Barton left Simmons & Simmons' increasingly high-profile IT and communications practice for Field Fisher Waterhouse.

Many have taken an even greater leap and joined clients' in-house departments. In March, Graham Allan left Baker & McKenzie to join Cisco Systems, while Osborne Clarke's David Schollenberger left in August to go in-house at Choice Hotels International.

Industry is also proving to be fertile recruiting ground for firms, according to one senior legal recruitment consultant. "The interesting thing about the e-commerce area is that it's one of the few areas where firms are open-minded about people returning from industry," she says.

"With the majority of areas, if you go in-house and stay there for two years, firms think that you've been there for too long. With e-commerce – especially if you've been involved with IT – you can have been in-house for up to four years, as long as you have had a decent grounding in private practice prior to that. It is an untapped market for private practice, to target industry for recruits."

The reasons for gearing up are manifold, but many firms are openly embracing this burgeoning area of law. Research carried out by New City Media identifies 79 different law firms with serious digital media practices. Over 150 interviews were held with clients.

One of the problems facing the research team was the sheer scale of the sector. The guide takes digital media to encompass internet, business-to-business e-commerce via proprietary systems (such as closed electronic trading), digital broadcasting, computer games and other forms of digital entertainment, as well as much work traditionally seen as IT, telecoms or intellectual property (copyright and trademark, principally).

No firm can yet claim to cover the wider sector fully – all come at it from a different direction, depending in many cases on where previous practice areas have been.

Some examples include Baker & McKenzie, Bird & Bird and Clifford Chance (IT, telecoms and in tellectual property); Denton Hall (media, telecoms); Olswang (media, digital TV); Theodore Goddard (media, music and advertising); Simmons & Simmons (telecoms); and Harbottle & Lewis (entertainment).

Recent recruitment has seen many firms building reputations in areas where they previously had none. For example Osborne Clarke came from nowhere several years ago to become one of the leading practices in IT, telecoms and media, having taken highly-rated lawyers such as Paul Gardner from Titmuss Sainer Dechert, Russell Bowyer from Frere Cholmeley Bischoff and Nigel Wildish from Turner Kenneth Brown, although he subsequently left for Field Fisher Waterhouse.

Top choices in the guide, all with a five star rating on overall digital media and e-commerce, are Bird & Bird, Clifford Chance, Denton Hall and Olswang. Bird & Bird is described as being one of the closest to providing a full-firm solution to e-commerce; Clifford Chance is praised but warned not to rest on its laurels; Denton Hall is praised in particular for a "fantastic" client list; and Olswang is seen as laying claim to being the closest to a full-service "convergence" firm.

Two firms are rated as being "on the heels" of the leaders: Baker & McKenzie – described as having "the pedigree and the personnel" to succeed – and Taylor Joynson Garrett ("surging on the back of a top US client list") are both given a four star rating.

The guide also identifies a number of firms as "ones to watch" for the future, namely: Allen & Overy, Freshfields, Kemp & Co, Linklaters & Alliance, Lovell White Durrant, Osborne Clarke, Simmons & Simmons and Theodore Goddard, all awarded three stars. Berwin Leighton and Nabarro Nathanson are both awarded two stars in the same list.

The guide also takes the unprecedented step of identifying a "digital dozen" – 12 rounded digital media lawyers who presented the research team with the most cogent, intelligent insights into the future of the sector, albeit in their own particular fields, and three rising stars are also identified. (see table)

Other firms are identified for their skills in particular areas within digital media. Clifford Chance and Linklaters & Alliance are both identified for their efforts in the delivery of legal services via digital media, as are Briffa & Co, Hammond Suddards and Rowe & Maw.

Edge Ellison is singled out for its advertising practice (rated five star insofar as digital media issues are concerned), whereas Olswang (digital TV), Theodore Goddard (music) and Osborne Clarke (computer games) top other tables.

Wragge & Co is the top choice in the Midlands, Maclay Murray & Spens rates highest in Scotland and Osborne Clarke in the South West. Manches and Osborne Clarke share the honours in the South and Thames Valley, and there is a four-way tie in the North, with Addleshaw Booth & Co, Dibb Lupton Alsop, Eversheds and Hammond Suddards all being singled out for praise.

The second edition of New City Media's Insider's Guide to Digital Media & E-Commerce will be published in October.