Robert Wilson

Shipping firm Holman Fenwick & Willan’s new senior partner Robert Wilson may have a hard task filling the shoes of his predecessor, but as Ryan Dunleavy discovers, there is a strong personality behind the professional.

At first glance it seems that Robert Wilson, newly elected senior partner at maritime practice Holman Fenwick & Willan, has his work cut out for him.

The resounding message which emerges from rival shipping partners is that when Wilson replaces the firm’s current senior partner Archie Bishop on 1 November, he will have much to live up to (The Lawyer, 17 April).

The highly rated Bishop is known as a “personality” in this niche area of law and has held the role of senior partner for 12 years.

Michael Payton, senior partner at Clyde & Co, speaks for a number of maritime lawyers when he says: “I do not know Wilson well, but I know Archie extremely well. Everyone tells me Wilson is a really nice guy though.”

A number of other shipping partners also profess to be ignorant of Wilson, and one industry source says: “I would have expected Archie to go on for some years.”

And the comments go on.

Some shipping lawyers even assume that Wilson is a finance partner, rather than a shipping lawyer, but this is not the case.

Wilson has been a lawyer specialising in shipping with Holman Fenwick since he left Cambridge and joined the firm in 1975. He became a partner in 1982.

But it is easy to see why he is not well known, as initially, he is less than forthcoming about himself.

Firstly, he refuses to talk in his room because of fear a that there is too much in the surrounding area that could be spied upon.

Secondly he will not comment on whether his election for senior partner was contested and will only talk about business in a dry manner, for example, he offers the description: “We are very client focused.”

Certainly Wilson is nothing if not professional, but it is hard to gauge much of the man behind his starchy, guarded nature.

But break through this defensive facade and he appears to be a different person.

His shoulders relax and he becomes witty and gregarious – only then is it clear why the firm elected him as its new senior partner.

Commenting on Bishop, he says: “Archie is quite a character but from holding the position [of senior partner] you develop that profile. I hope I am known as a bit of a personality at the end of my career too.”

He explains that Bishop, who will become a consultant, is also better known because he is from a previous generation that is now being displaced by a younger set of lawyers who are still developing their reputations and making names for themselves.

But if Wilson is after a reputation as a flamboyant lawyer, he will not go far wrong if he recites this little tale in the next partnership meeting.

As a newly made up partner, he was sent to Sydney to work on a case involving a ship that had been destroyed by fire.

Naturally, the captain of the ship had to be interviewed.

“He tried to shoot us,” Wilson explains. “He had been very upset about the casualties on the ship and was probably in denial of his own responsibility.”

The man promptly pulled a revolver on Wilson and emptied its chamber of bullets at him.

The heroic Wilson and his client wrestled the gun off the captain by smashing his wrist on an open car door only for the captain to run back into his house and emerge with a rifle.

“By then I was way down the road,” he says.

A car chase ensued, culminating in the psychotic captain ramming into the back of Wilson’s car and pushing it into a shopping centre car park.

After shooting himself in the foot, the captain was arrested but the police did not want to charge him.

Wilson says: “After that the police could not take his guns away. So I thought I could do without his statement.”

If it is possible to compare this thrilling incident with an exciting case, Wilson cites the Delfini brief, where shipping law was radically changed by the establishment of a new legal precedent.

He says the Bills of Landing Act 1855 had been hard to interpret by the courts since it was created, but Wilson managed to set a precedent in his clients’ favour that made it difficult for any future cargo claims to be sure of success.

The case altered common law and the interpretation of the original act to such an extent that Parliament had to pass another piece of legislation in 1991 to redress the balance.

“Being at the cutting edge and shaping the law like that is really satisfying,” he says.

But Wilson also has a softer side to his nature. He says he is devoted to his wife and children whom he argues are his main concern in life. “Any time I have outside of work I spend with my family,” he says.

His wife, Helen, is Australian and they have a 12-year-old son, Duncan, and a 15-year-old daughter, Anna. They plan to spend five weeks in Brisbane with Helen’s family before Wilson takes up his new post.

The new senior partner of Holman Fenwick may say that he has no hobbies except spending time with his family and playing a little golf – despite his handicap being an “enjoyable” 22 – but it might be worth engaging him in conversation a little further because he could be the next Archie Bishop of the shipping law world.
Robert Wilson
Senior partner
Holma Fenwick & Willan