Berwin Leighton has become the latest firm to join the dotcom world by launching a joint venture with accountancy giant Deloitte & Touche – and has already considered the option of floating.
The firms have jointly invested £5m in setting up an internet venture dubbed Be-Professional, which aims to deliver basic professional services to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It is the first time a City law firm has joined forces with a top five accountancy firm to create a separate business.
Berwin Leighton managing partner Neville Eisenberg says: “Be-Professional will revolutionise the way professional services are delivered and how businesses and their advisers interact.
“Smaller businesses will be able to access high quality business solutions drawing on our combined expertise.
“We may float in a few years time if that’s a sensible thing to do. It might be worth a lot in a few years, but we’re not retiring from law and accounting yet.”
Be-Professional will be launched fully in October, but its initial service, which provides information on VAT liability and creates tailored privacy statements, can now be accessed through www. firstname.lastname@example.org, and provides basic bespoke documents through a series of logic trees.
“You answer a variety of questions, press a button and you’ve got a privacy statement tailored to your re-quirements,” says Eisenberg.
Be-Professional may be marketed to the SME sector and advisers to the SME sector, but Eisenberg is adamant that Berwin Leighton itself is not courting smaller businesses as clients for the firm. “We don’t want SMEs as clients. Be-Professional is a separate business, it’s not a way of attracting new clients,” he says.
“Everyone’s been talking about commoditisation and it’s finally arrived.”
Deloitte & Touche head of e-business Richard Punt says: “The key feature is that SMEs and start-up businesses no longer want information via the web. They want solutions to their business issues.”
Berwin Leighton is convinced that Be-Professional can generate sufficient revenues as a business proposition, although Eisenberg is vague on exact figures.
“There are 3.7 million SMEs,” he says. “If we get 1 per cent of them as customers by year two, and assume that the subscription fee is, say, £300 for a range of services, you can see the numbers.”
But Eisenberg is reluctant to go into revenue projections. “Until the pricing is more definite, which is hard to do until the product is [fully launched], it’s theoretical,” he says.
“But it is more than just a hunch – we have done a lot of market research and we are satisfied there is a real demand.”
Berwin Leighton and Deloittes have already built an alliance with WorldPay, the UK’s largest e-commerce payment services provider, which has a strong share of the SME marketplace. Be-Professional will have automatic access to WorldPay’s customers.
The electronic frontier has become a new battleground for law firms trying to capitalise on the new economy.
Niche IP firm Briffa & Co has created an online shop with a range of detailed documents for sale not just to clients but to the public as well. Anyone can buy from their library of legal information.
The firm’s managing partner Margaret Briffa says: “For us it’s like a glorified business card. We can make contact with potential new clients.”
Kemp & Co, which specialises in internet-related issues, targets its free information service at potential clients. Managing partner Richard Kemp says: “It’s a good sales tool for us, it’s credential setting. It draws people to us.”
Larger firms are investing huge amounts into their web presence, offering online deal rooms, project monitoring and client/firm communication.
Linklaters & Alliance’s Blue Flag offers a complex range of options, including report and contract generation and international jurisdiction documents, as does Clifford Chance‘s NextLaw. But Simmons & Simmons has taken a slightly different approach with Matchco.co.uk, which tries to bring entrepreneurs with good ideas together with backers, at the same time offering advice and support for those starting new projects.