The last couple of years have been relatively quiet for the legal department of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC).

But that has probably come as a relief after the long-running wrangle with 327 sacked dockers, which started in 1995 and went on until January 1998.

The industrial dispute began after the dockers were sacked for refusing to cross a picket line at the Port of Liverpool, which the company owns.

It eventually cost MDHC £10m to settle the dispute. William Bowley, director of legal services at MDHC, says that all the UK legal work relating to the action took place in-house.

But the Liverpool dockers persuaded the US unions to back them and, as a result, US dockers refused to deal with cargo that had passed through the Port of Liverpool.

Bowley says: “The docks affected were mainly on the east coast of the States and we used Mayer Brown & Platt over there to sort things out.”

“We also used a lawyer called Peter Pantaleo of Pantaleo Limkin & Moss, whose name was given to us by the British Embassy. He is a New York guy who kept coming up with different ideas during the dispute.

“He recommended Mayer Brown & Platt who were also recommended by the British Embassy.”

But the dispute is now a thing of the past. In 1998, the Port of Liverpool achieved record profits and Bowley says that there is no remaining legal work resulting from what was one of the UK’s longest strikes.

For happier times, the MDHC uses Linklaters as its main corporate firm.

“We use them for mainly historical reasons. We were introduced to them in the late eighties or early nineties by a merchant bank, got on very well with them and have continued to use them.

“We use them for major corporate work and also some major litigation work.”

Berrymans Lace Mawer is used for other commercial work and also for MDHC’s employer’s liability insurance.

“Berrymans came to us and we decided to use them based on experience of them and knowing them as a local firm.

“We have also set up a scheme with Berrymans whereby they send solicitors on six-month secondments with us.”

MDHC also uses Berrymans for some property work, alongside Masons which covers the same area, albeit on a smaller scale.

Finally, Hill Dickinson carries out shipping law work.

Bowley estimates that around 20 per cent of the legal work is outsourced. This work tends to be the bigger cases and deals.

As for MDHC’s in-house department, unlike in many other companies, each solicitor has their own area of expertise.

Bowley is a commercial lawyer, while one member of his team covers property work and the other deals mainly with litigation.

Ongoing property work includes plans to build a roll-on roll-off (RO-RO) terminal in the port.

Initial plans to build it in Liverpool’s Trafalgar Dock have been shelved following environmental concerns. The in-house team is now preparing an environmental statement for a preliminary application to build it in another dock. The report will be presented to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Bowley confesses that the last major deal the team worked on was buying up Medway Ports of Sheerness and Chatham in 1993, which was handled by Linklaters. But he is by no means bored.

He says: “The work here is very interesting and keeps us very busy. I have been here since 1974 and would not want to go back into private practice.”

Organisation The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company
Employees 2000
FTSE rating 329
Market capitalistion £401.8m
Head of legal William Bowley
Reporting to Managing director and chief executive Trevor Furlong
Main location for lawyers Liverpool
Main law firms Linklaters & Alliance, Berrymans Lace Mawer, Hill Dickinson, Masons