Mark Watts – joint managing partner of Bristows – on juggling fee earning & management, the firm’s revenues & its future

Mark, can you give us a rundown of your career to date?
I trained and qualified at Bristows, initially as an IP litigator, but around this time the world-wide web was just developing and this prompted me to want to become a commercial technology lawyer. After considering various options, I moved in-house to IBM, where, within a month or so, I became its European data privacy lawyer, mainly because no one else fancied doing it. I stayed at IBM for almost seven years, during which time I held various roles, including that of global privacy lawyer. I had a great time, and it was an amazing place to work, but towards the end, I decided to make a move back to private practice, and Bristows was the obvious place; indeed, the joke around here is that my seven or so years at IBM was really just a very long client secondment.

I rejoined Bristows as a partner in 2003, and since then have focussed on growing the firm’s Commercial IT practice (we’re now up to four full-time partners). I became one of our two joint managing partners in 2010 and am currently doing my second term.

You’ve been vocal about maintaining your fee earning alongside your management duties. How challenging is that and what are the benefits to the firm?
It’s been busy. Unlike other firms, our model (i.e. having two JMPs) means that it’s possible to keep fee-earning; indeed, the way that technology has exploded in recent years has meant that I have done more fee-earning since becoming a JMP than before. I’ve had to get in a bit earlier than I used to, and I now leave a bit later, but I really enjoy it, particularly the strategic aspects – looking at where the firm is heading and how best to grow, while retaining our culture and values. It’s also fun too, and I’m lucky in terms of who I work with; the other JMP, Iain Redford; is great, and we’re supported by an excellent team of finance, marketing, HR and IT professionals.

Bristows’ revenue was up 10% in 2014/2015. What’s that been down to?
Lots of hard work by lots of talented and motivated people. Focussing on the Life Sciences and TMT sectors is also serving us well.

What do you think will be the standout departments moving forward and why?
It’s hard to single out a particular department. Our Business Groups are closely integrated and work closely together. So, for example, with the TMT sector enjoying a boom, particularly in London, we have seen growth and strong performance across the board for those groups with strong expertise in TMT, whether it’s real estate, IP litigation, corporate – they’re all doing well. It’s a similar picture in Life Sciences.

Will you be launching any new initiatives or services over the coming year?
The advent of the Unified Patent Court continues to draw nearer and, with patent litigation being a hugely important part of our business, we will continue to promote our market-leading practice in this area; this is likely to result in several exciting, new initiatives.

What are your plans for the IT team specifically?
Now that there are four partners focussed on Commercial IT transactions, we have been able to grow the group significantly and, between us, to cover every aspect of IT to a good level of expertise and specialism. I’d like to see this ‘breadth’ continue, so we can cover anything IT-related that our clients come to us with, rather than us focussing only on certain aspects to the exclusion of others.

Right now, we’re covering IT, telecoms, media, outsourcing, data, e-commerce – everything, and this variety makes it interesting for our team, I hope. Over the next twelve months, we will also be promoting our expertise in connection with the EU’s Digital Single Market initiative and the complete overhaul of EU data protection law. These are two interesting and important areas for us.

How closely do Bristows’ teams work together?
We’re one big team!

Would you ever look at opening an office overseas or in another UK city?
No immediate plans but never say never. Looking out of the window today, it would have to be somewhere hot, or at least dry,

On a more personal note, where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Professionally, at Bristows, but, personally, I would hope to have found a bit more time for certain hobbies. I have a mild obsession with kung fu. In ten years time, my poor old joints permitting, I would hope that I am still carrying on with this.