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Thomas Cooper & Stibbard, which specialises in shipping, insurance, aviation and banking, defies the generally-held belief that overseas offices are an expensive luxury that small firms can ill afford.
Thomas Cooper is relaxed about having offices in all the major time zones. “We follow the clients’ needs,” says senior partner Stephen Swabey.
The firm’s Madrid office, which concentrates mainly on energy and shipping work, was set up because Spanish law firms were constantly referring English law work to Thomas Cooper’s London office.
Therefore, it made sense to handle it in Spain. Secondary to this was building a solid business in the Iberian Peninsula.
The firm’s Singapore office was the idea of partner Mark Sachs. He made a formal pitch to the firm to set up an office there in the late 1980s. At the time he was out of work, having recently left Canadian firm Bull Housser & Tupper, which had just pulled out of Peking.
Thomas Cooper took up the offer – it saw a business opportunity in servicing Chinese clients – and hired Sachs to set the ball rolling. Then, when some of Thomas Cooper’s Hong Kong clients moved to Canada, the firm followed them and set up an office there.
Thomas Cooper managed for decades to avoid the expense of having a permanent presence in Greece, despite being long-term legal advisers for the National Bank of Greece. However, in 1999 it set up an office in Kolonaki, Athens’ shipping district, after a shift in client thinking: they had become dissatisfied with constantly referring work to London lawyers and had begun giving it to local firms.
In all these cases, Thomas Cooper has followed client needs as opposed to fulfilling some long-term strategy. But the firm has had some luck along the way too. Partner Alfred Merckx is attracting a lot of the competition work related to EU accession countries, thanks to his knowledge of EU law (he is a native Belgian) and his connections in Eastern Europe, a region he loves to visit.
Despite these adventurous overseas forays, Thomas Cooper is a fairly conservative firm, retaining a traditional management structure and is largely reliant on organic growth. It continues to rely a lot on ship casualty work, which the larger traditional maritime firms such as Clyde & Co and Ince & Co are pulling out of because of its low profit margin. Thomas Cooper acts for five London-based protection and indemnity (P&I) clubs and one in Scandinavia. In the aviation sector, it acts largely for small aircraft companies and airport support staff rather than for the big airlines.
Unlike many maritime firms, Thomas Cooper handles ship finance work as well as ship litigation. Swabey also brings in some big-ticket litigation. In two separate recent actions he has acted for fishermen in Spain and St George Island, near the Falkland Islands. It is not a coincidence that both these cases have Spanish-Latin American connections, as Thomas Cooper believes it has a big future in both these regions.