June 30, 2001

SCL IT Law Conference

The Bristol Boot Camp identified a need for more advanced education aimed at more experienced practitioners. After casting around for a name for this new event (the Mind Gym was considered as a name, but unfortunately it’s a registered trade mark), we settled on the unoriginal but descriptive SCL IT Law Conference. The conference takes the formula that made the Boot Camp such a huge success – great speakers, top quality venue and vibrant social programme – and applies it to a target audience of Partners, Associates and Solicitors practising IT/e-commerce law, in-house lawyers or experienced contract managers in the IT industry and previous attendees at the Boot Camp.

The venue is the acclaimed Bath Spa Hotel. Well known names from Baker McKenzie, Bird & Bird, Masons, Osborne Clarke, Shaw Pittman, Wragge & Co and v-lex will update you on the latest developments affecting:

  • intellectual property rights
  • contract based law
  • outsourcing & managed services

After listening to the first afternoon of presentations, relax in the Jacuzzi with co-chairmen Harry Small and John Yates, or challenge them to a 2000m race on a rowing machine. Later, join the speakers and other delegates for dinner in the hotel. But the night is still young, and so are you. Snigger at tired chat up lines, whilst fending off would be suitors (“Would you like to come to my room? I have a mini bar.”).

The SCL IT Law Conference may not evoke the same images as the Boot Camp – sweaty mud-splattered trainees dragging their tired limbs round an assault course – but make no mistake, if you sign up, you’re going to have to stay sharp to keep up with the elite pack.

Shake-out time?

The most interesting development over the last few weeks has been the acquisition by TFB of Avenue Legal Systems. That acquisition came close behind the floating of the Tikit Group on the alternative investment market. What do these developments suggest about the position of legal software suppliers and provision of IT services to law firms? Are we facing a major shake-out, or are other influences at work?

I have long agreed with the view that the traditional market for legal software suppliers is smaller than is capable, in the long term, of supporting the number of suppliers that exist. The main reason for this is that the market for certain types of products is shrinking, notwithstanding the increased willingness to invest in IT, because it is subject to attack from generic software – the capacity of such software to deal with detailed tasks and to be tailored for specialist areas has certainly increased substantially in the course of the last few years. But there is another recognisable influence on the prospects for change in this area – the generational shake-out may be as important as the market influence. It is clear to anyone who visits the principal exhibitions that many of the main players in the legal software suppliers market are the product of the first era when there was a realistic opportunity to apply IT to the business of law. I can find three or four ways of expressing this phenomenon but it is best expressed in the view that the inspirations behind the companies are often men of a certain age. It is therefore not surprising that, as Charles Christian has reported and I am inclined to accept, a number of these organisations have indicated that they would be interested in selling to a rival (or ‘sympathetic alternative supplier’). While the difficulties in funding the sort of leading-edge resource which is necessary to keep their products competitive may be a major factor, or concern about shrinking markets post Y2K may make them tremble, it may also be that the prospect of the villa in Spain and a somewhat less challenging life is an influence. We are not meant to see personal motives in the shifts in the market where limited companies are concerned, but the reality is that many of these organisations are dominated by an individual or a handful of individuals.

Whatever the motiviation for change, if change is to come, I am inclined to welcome a narrowing of the market. This welcome does not arise from an unnatural inclination towards reduction in choice, but is a recognition that the spread of suppliers makes it difficult for them to provide all the services which are necessary where they are making provision for a small number of firms and have insufficient revenue to produce top-class products. If there are to be difficulties in dealing with the change of ownership – and I suspect that some Avenue customers will suffer to some extent – then they are difficulties which pale into insignificance compared to a long-term future of using outdated products or, in the worst possible case, dealing with a failed supplier.

But overall I think the market is healthy, and future pastures will be like my lawn – distinctly green, in patches. There is a great deal of room for software and services specially tailored for law firms – a product just has to do more than cope with peculiar accounting requirements to be deemed ‘specialist’. That TFB have made this move, the second of two acquisitions this year, and that Tikit have been successfully placed on the alternative investment market does suggest that there is life in this particular market in the eyes of the commercially aware, and hard-nosed, bodies who have provided the necessary funding. Who am I to argue with that?