Michael Helmer

Former Field Fisher Waterhouse senior assistant Michael Helmer has become the first ever in-house lawyer at Shopsmart.com. He tells Abigail Townsend how he enjoys being part of the team.

While waiting to meet Michael Helmer, Shopsmart.com’s new head of legal affairs, the receptionist takes a phone call.

Putting the caller on hold, she informs the intended recipient: “I’ve got someone for you. She sounds like a right snotty cow.”

If the bean-bags, pool table and other telltale techy signs were not enough, the receptionist makes it perfectly clear – welcome to the brave new dotcom world. For the City, read Cricklewood. For pinstripe, read combat trousers. For office, read open-plan work space.

For Helmer, the former Field Fisher Waterhouse senior assistant who joined the company three weeks ago, this is all part of the attraction.

His previous boss, Field Fisher’s head of IT and e-commerce law Michael Chissick, was not surprised by his decision to move in-house. “He is a very nice, very charismatic and personable young lawyer and he is actually a pretty good well rounded lawyer as well,” Chissick adds.

Dressed in chinos and sporting possibly the smallest beard ever (just one lone square centimetre underneath the lip), he already feels at home – even if he has not had a chance to play a game of pool yet. “People have woken up to the fact that there is an in-house lawyer and that it is quite useful,” he says. “So the door is always open to their queries.”

Shopsmart.com, established in 1998, compares prices online. It has recently launched in Germany and Sweden and intends to continue pushing into the European market. Although the company will not release figures, in the last quarter Shopsmart.com reputedly did what few, if any, dotcoms have done and showed a profit.

Helmer is the company’s first in-house lawyer and his current priority is to recruit more staff. As the 29-year-old concedes, he is now in a central in-house role where he has to provide advice on not only his own practice area, but on a whole host of other company and commercial matters.

“There is a broader spectrum of work and people do expect that. But you have got to realise that you cannot know everything. If you put yourself in that position then frankly you are disillusioned.”

Helmer did his traineeship in Melbourne. He initially specialised in media law but since qualifying five years ago has found his practice gradually drift towards other areas.

He says: “I started in media law and then moved into telecoms and IT. It was very logical because that was the way business was moving and we went with our clients’ needs.”

He left Australia for the UK in 1998, and spent a year at Fladgate Fielder before moving to Field Fisher, where he also stayed for a year. But Helmer, despite professing to enjoy private practice, sees himself remaining in-house for the foreseeable future.

Although he readily admits he had no vocation for the legal profession – “It is something that you drift into after university” – he professes to have since developed a love for his job through working with clients.

“Academically, the law did not do great things for me. But once you have the interaction with clients that really puts the icing on the cake. I am one of those sad people that actually enjoys being a lawyer.”

This, he explains, is why he abandoned a range of clients and eventually a partnership to move in-house. He says of his time at Field Fisher: “It was dealing with a lot of start-ups and although that was very exciting and you would see a client take a concept through from fruition, you were not really part of the team.”

Watching his peer group become disenchanted with the profession also encouraged him to approach Shopsmart.com. He says: “I have friends in the City who are having crises and drinking vast amounts of coffee wondering whether they should have become foresters. It is not for everyone – the whole highly-charged City environment.”

Helmer is currently in the process of reviewing Shopsmart.com’s panel of external legal advisers – Ashurst Morris Crisp and Mischon De Reya in the UK, Hellström & Partners in Sweden and Freshfields in Germany.

He wants to slash legal costs by as much as 50 per cent if possible, as the internet company continues its European expansion. When he visits the firms at the end of next month, fees will be a major negotiation point.

But he will not be offering equity as payment instead of fees. This is despite Field Fisher being one of the first firms to accept equity as a form of payment. In his opinion, fewer firms will be offering the service in the immediate future: “It was more attractive to people before we had the correction in the stock market. I think people would have had their fingers burned at that stage.”

Helmer passionately believes in the longevity of the dotcom culture, despite artificially high initial public offerings, a lack of visible profits and failures such as online retailer Boo.com.

“E-commerce is here to stay. Just because the City has had some doubts, and rightly so because there were a lot of over-inflated prices out there, this industry is going to keep growing.

“Shopsmart.com is one of the most solid e-commerce models I have seen, and I have seen a quite a few, solid or otherwise. We are not running on a promise. It is a very well known brand in the UK.”

The only notable problem Helmer has got at the moment involves buses. Shopsmart.com is based in north west London meaning Helmer has had to abandon his habit of roller-blading from Tower Hill to his home in Hammersmith each night. “I haven’t tried it but I’d get flattened by a bus. So I’m having to think about other ways of indulging my passions,” he says.
Michael Helmer
In-house lawyer