Offshore law meets global challenge

There were two big talking points in the offshore legal world last year. And many speculated that the two were linked, as Walkers’ decision to sell off its fiduciary business was followed promptly by Maples and Calder’s raid on its rival for a team of funds partners.

Maples’ hires, as we report in this week’s Offshore Top 30 survey (page 32), took the firm back to the top of the heap in terms of partner and lawyer numbers. Walkers, meanwhile, dropped to fourth place, with Appleby and the ambitious Mourant Ozannes sandwiched between the two Cayman leaders.

While looking at headcount may be a shallow way of observing a legal market, the reluctance of offshore firms to talk about their financials means it remains the only quantitative way we can rank the sector.

Nevertheless, there is some progress; 11 offshore firms this year gave an indication of revenue change. Nine of them reported comfortable growth, while the two Bermuda firms that responded to the question, Cox Hallett Wilkinson and Wakefield Quin, said turnover was down and flat respectively.

Examining headcount reveals an intriguing trend in the past year. Lateral hires between offshore firms are up, with partners apparently much more willing to consider jumping ship for a rival than before. Increasing globalisation could be playing a part here, with several of the hires linked to firms entering jurisdictions for the first time.

As a result, although there were no major mergers offshore last year, 2012 could well turn out to be a key period for the market. Firms are positioning themselves for a world in which relying on a single jurisdiction is no longer an option. Many have revealed plans for new offices or associations overseas, especially in Asia and Africa.

And, like their onshore counterparts, many – though not all – clearly think size will help. Expect further growth and more consolidation in the coming year.

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