Will Birds' wings be clipped?

Bird & Bird turned itself into a top-notch IT firm at breathtaking speed. But now that it has plans to expand its practice internationally, this small player needs to be aware of problems lurking on the horizon. By Anne McGrath.

Size isn't everything – as the success of London firm Bird & Bird has consistently shown. At, or very near the top, in every ranking of leading information technology law firms, Birds' reputation continues to soar ever higher.

The 39-partner firm started out in the last century doing leading patent cases, and went on to develop a reputation in intellectual property.

Then, in 1990, Birds reinvented itself. Identifying the IT sector as a vertical market, it honed its legal skills and industry knowledge to offer IT expertise. Refocused, Birds soon emerged as a market leader.

So what is the secret of Birds' success?

Christopher Rees, co-chairman of the IT group, part of the company/commercial department, identifies the exceptional nature of the people the firm attracts. It is no secret that the partners in the IT group, like many throughout the firm, have long-standing reputations as leading lights in IT. Two of them, Hilary Pearson and Hamish Sandison, are dual qualified, with considerable experience of practising IT law in the US.

“What we've done rather better than other firms is to bring together people who are enthusiasts for the subject and let them follow their enthusiasms to see where it takes them,” says Rees.

This autonomous/expansionist approach has meant the practice has developed in innovative ways.

But Birds is still badged as a niche firm that directs almost all of its attention to the technology based specialisms. According to Herbert Smith partner Bill Moodie, it means Birds does not have the capability to do the large corporate and financing work clients increasingly demand.

Sandison admits: “The downside of being particularly strong in one sector is that people think that is all you do.”

But it is a misconception he is keen to correct. “We are a full-service firm, with the multi-disciplinary expertise and breadth which convergence requires,” Sandison says.

In recent years, Birds has increased its corporate capability, developed its employment law group and opened a banking group.

However, the global nature of much IT work, and the arrival of the euro making people more aware of the single market could, says Michael Hart, a partner at Baker & McKenzie's IT department, be a disadvantage to firms not perceived to have a strong international presence.

Birds claims to be addressing this. Rees emphasises the amount of international work the firm already handles from the UK.

If this is a case of the brand being there before the product, the product may soon follow. Birds already has offices in Hong Kong and Brussels, and there are plans to link up with like-minded practices in France and Germany. Rees is looking to form a European network in the next few years.

But there is a perception that the firm may lack strength on the contentious side. Rees admits to an imbalance here, given the firm's presence on the non-contentious side, but says the results it extracts are as good as, if not better, than anyone else.

Birds has recent-ly been trying to add steel to its litiga tion capability. “We aim to put our selves in the position where clients will inst-ruct Birds bec-ause they could not face the prospect of having us on the other side,” Rees says.