Focus: Bristows: Hard drive

They like to do things slowly at Bristows. In 2003 co-head of the IT department Mark Watts, who trained at the firm, rejoined after 12 years in-house at IBM. Since then he has been working on building a non-contentious ­transactional technology team with the credibility to match his firm’s globally known IP brand. That is six years, maths fans.

For years the progress was ­minimal. To be fair, Bristows’ all-equity partnership and pure lockstep remuneration system is not the kind of structure that lends itself to an aggressive hiring spree.

But recently the pace of growth, both in Watts’ IT group and the firm as a whole, has mushroomed. Last year the firm’s revenue rose by 19.5 per cent, from £18.5m to £22.1m (see box), with fee income from the non-contentious IT group up by around 40 per cent.

The signs are that Watts’ long-held ambition of building a team capable of competing with the likes of Baker & McKenzie, Bird & Bird or Pinsent Masons for the top IT jobs is nearing fruition.

Fresh blood

The latest piece of the jigsaw ­officially started at Bristows today (23 ­November). As reported on page 5, former Bird & Bird partner Hazel Grant, a data protection and public sector IT specialist, has joined as the latest new recruit in Watts’ group.

Grant is the second major hire from Bird & Bird this year after ­senior associate Toby Crick also joined as a partner in September.

Crick arrived shortly after ­Bristows snared the former head of Maclay Murray & Spens’ IP/IT team Fiona Nicolson in June. The former head of Linklaters’ global privacy practice Christopher Millard also joined last September.

It is an impressive haul of talent and one that these days, Watts says, is matched by the client base.

“Of the top 20 IT companies [in the world] we’ve acted for 10,” he claims.

The size and value of the projects for each client naturally varies, but nevertheless it is a solid boast. And in what is a sure sign that Bristows’ technology and outsourcing team is increasingly being taken seriously by some of the market’s biggest clients, this July Barclays appointed the firm to its commercial panel to handle IT.

For a practice best known for advising suppliers such as IBM, Siemens and Capgemini (it has ­handled more than a dozen ­outsourcing projects over the past 12 months for the latter), a few more customer-side instructions will do much to convince the market that Bristows has a well-balanced group.

Indeed, financial institutions is a key target sector for Watts’ group and one of the drivers behind the hire of Crick, a lawyer who gained considerable customer-side experience in that sector while at Bird & Bird.

Equally, a push into public sector is part of the rationale for Grant’s arrival, while the third leg of the ­practice, IT suppliers, looks to be already well catered for.

“The aim is to be sufficiently well-represented in those three sectors,” confirms Watts.

New home, new image

Bristows’ new office on the bank of the Thames is the most obvious ­signal that the firm is revving up its image. It moved last year from its previous home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Although the partners wince if the word ‘boutique’ is mentioned, its ­former home sent out a message of a slightly sleepy outfit known for its technical – and academic – ­excellence.

Now, at the distinctly more ­modern 100 Victoria Embankment, Bristows is not only looking to ramp up in non-contentious technology, but also in other parts of the practice, notably corporate and ­litigation.

Indeed, in May this year the firm brought in corporate partner Ken Boehner from Kilpatrick Stockton, while last year it hired litigation ­partner trio Geoffrey Gauci, James Irvine and Charles Pugh from Howrey. Their arrival went some way to mitigating the loss of five IP ­partners in one go when a group left in 2006 to form boutique Powell Gilbert.

Watts’ technology group has seen the most significant growth recently, however. It also has the highest chance of shaking up the established order in the London ­market.

But it is not there yet. The market perception that 30-partner Bristows is an IP boutique with a bolted-on IT practice will take some shifting.

“They need a lateral at a senior level to head the IT practice,” argues one rival. “They have no grey hairs.”

Watts might not like it, but his ­market profile is nowhere near as high as that of Millard, one of the world’s data protection specialists and a recognised name as a senior lawyer. But Millard is a consultant and not a partner and does not work at the firm full-time.

Equally, the only ‘grey hairs’ in the IT group are most obviously ­provided by Philip Westmacott, a well-­respected lawyer who co-heads the IT group with Watts, but who is ­fundamentally an IP patent litigator.

The problem is that Bristows lacks strength in depth. Crick, although a rising star when at Bird & Bird and described by a rival as a “go-getter”, only made partner two months ago; Grant is primarily a data protection specialist (part of the attraction of ­Bristows for Grant was to help build a preeminent data protection business), although with undoubted public ­sector strengths; and Nicolson’s former firm Maclay has never featured among the leading names for IT.

There is also the issue of having the appropriate number of ­associates to match the incoming partners. Even Watts admits that “our leverage is shot to pieces”.

At least in terms of changing ­market ­perception, Bristows has a mountain to climb.

Scaling the heights

With the energy and commitment to build the team that is currently being displayed by Watts, though, that mountain might turn out to be more of a foothill.

“Getting onto panels when the client has always used one of the ­bigger firms will certainly be an issue for them,” argues Bird & Bird partner Chris Holder. “The question will inevitably be, ‘why use Bristows?’. But IP can be a great leader into these things and I do think Mark can do it.”

But Holder says that Watts’ ­personality – “intelligent, funny, ­people warm to him” – and his ­experience at IBM will stand the team in good stead.

“I do think they’re a credible force,” he adds. “I just hope Mark doesn’t steal any of my clients – if he does I’ll give him a Chinese burn.”

Climbing the part of the mountain marked ‘hiring associates’ is ­unlikely to be too much of an ask in the ­current market. Getting the team to gel is also unlikely to be a big ­problem. Lawyers often like to bang on about how well they get on with their colleagues and how their firms are “a nice place to work”, but in this case it might just be true.

Crick and Grant know each other from their Bird & Bird days, while Watts says he has known Grant “for years”. Ditto Grant and Millard, while Nicolson and Irvine know each other from the days when they used to ­travel to work together on the same river taxi from Putney.

“I know it’s a cliché to say we all get on well together, but it’s genuinely true,” Watts insists.

That camaraderie will come in handy as Watts and his team attempt to take on the established technology order in London.

But if it can get a few more appointments such as Barclays under its belt, then the market will be forced to admit that there is a new kid on the IT block – even if it has been a few years and the kid has started shaving.