Ryan Dunleavy discovers that Bristol firms are determined not to miss out on the boom in e-commerce work.
Bristol firms are waking up to the fact that intellectual property, information technology and e-commerce are providing a huge new area of work and expertise. Each area creates regulatory, transactional, ownership and a whole host of new technological legal issues that clients need advice on.
One legal analyst in the area says: "I think that all the commercial firms in Bristol are alive to the business case for IT/IP work." The three largest firms – Bevan Ashford, Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke – are certainly gearing up to supply legal advice in this area.
Leslie Perrin, managing partner of Osborne Clarke, says: "IT is expanding at an incredible rate for us. In fact it has probably become our major sector specialisation. There is quite simply a lot of IT work about." The firm has two IT teams in Bristol.
Osborne Clarke's clients include internet service provider Yahoo!, NatWest's IT fund, internet company Netscape Communications, and telecommunications and networking company Lucent Technologies Marlborough Stirling.
Perrin says that soon it will not just be hi-tech companies that are IT clients. He says: "Everyone will be an IT client because everyone will be an internet company. The internet economy is the place where 21st century businesses will be judged."
Bob Smyth, business development partner at Burges Salmon, says: "We have a particular niche in hi-tech software development and design. It is the high intellectual end of product design.
"Bristol is a centre for three-dimensional graphics and the development of new products. The companies here are small but they are doing exciting things. The thing about hi-tech companies is they are often very small. They are a lot like property developers. Often there are only about half a dozen people."
Simon Beswick, head of corporate law at Osborne Clarke, says: "From relatively small beginnings the other law firms have caught on that it is a good marketplace to be in.
"It all started from fairly humble beginnings. One or two clients moved to Bristol and thought it was a good place to practise. But we are starting to see the second generation of IT entrepreneurs.
"A good example of this is that I acted on the start-up of Aethos Communications about four years ago. Four engineers who set up the business stations for Orange decided to set up a company that developed the software for mobile phones and ended up accounting for 60 per cent of the mobile phone market."
Osborne Clarke acted for the company's initial fund raising of £1m. It did another fund raising for the company two years ago and raised £4m. And a year ago it helped sell the business for £47m.
Beswick says: "We are now acting for the key funder in subsequent investments."
He adds: "A lot of what we deal with is e-commerce rather than IT. We do many fund raisings for these type of businesses. But this is in sharp contrast to 18 months ago.
"Until recently it was difficult to find funding for proposals. But now a lot of funding is available for e-commerce businesses. Venture capitalists can't get enough of them."
He says one of the reasons for this eagerness is the flotation of the internet service provider Freeserve by Dixons this year. It was launched in late 1998 and was floated less than a year later for £1.5bn.
He says: "It is a good example of the potential worth of internet companies and it has achieved a great deal of confidence in e-commerce businesses."
Even the larger firms with reputations for handling public sector work, such as Bevan Ashford, are gearing up for an increase in e-commerce, IT and IP work.
Nick Jarrett-Kerr, management board chairman of Bevan Ashford, says: "At the moment the projects side is expanding the most but we are seeing good expansion in IT/IP. The large firms are all focusing on this area because it is growing so much."
But there are indications that slightly smaller firms in Bristol are not fully organised in winning this type of technological business. A stock response from these firms is that given by David Sedgwick, managing partner of Clarke Willmott & Clarke. He says: "We are looking to expand further into that but it is not one of our main strengths."
But with so much work arising from emerging technologies in the Bristol legal market it is likely that smaller firms will also start to focus on this sector.
In the meantime the top three firms are taking advantage of the situation by pushing through a high volume of interesting and significant IT, IP and e-commerce deals that will consolidate their expertise for the future.