What do onshore law firms look for when referring private client work offshore? The lawyers responsible reveal all

The offshore market is in the middle of an increasingly consolidatory phase, with many of the top 20 offshore firms having combined with one or more of their competitors in the last two to three years.

With increasingly limited options available within the offshore legal ranks, the relationships those firms are able to cultivate with their onshore counterparts – who are, effectively, their clients – are even more critical.

So what do UK firms look for when selecting an offshore firm to work with?

Chris Lintott, partner, Penningtons(pictured)

One of the most noticeable developments in the private client legal field over the last 20 years is the improvement in the quality and standard of presentation of advice from lawyers in offshore jurisdictions. In the late 1980s, the standard of legal advice was decidedly patchy, and I vividly recall being told that the advice I urgently needed was going to have to wait, as the lawyer I had instructed was “going fishing”.

That attitude has more or less gone. Responses are now far quicker, and many more offshore lawyers are aware of what is happening in other jurisdictions than was the case in the past.

Why is this? Partly a response to clients’ needs; everyone now expects immediate action, sometimes perhaps at the cost of a considered response; and there are more international clients than ever before, so the skills required are more honed.

Part of the reason could be that lawyers acting for international clients see each other more than they used to. Through mutual clients, through the offshore conference circuit, through organisations such as Step (the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners), we meet lawyers from other jurisdictions on a regular basis: if you do not provide the best possible service, there is going to be someone else who can.

There is also a new sort of client out there. Years ago, offshore work largely involved UK-origin clients, with all that that connotes. Now it is much more focused on the international rich, almost invariably involving substantial commercial interests. As a result, lawyers both on and offshore have had to alter their approach – it’s harder work, but more fun.

Catharine Bell, head of contentious trusts and estates, LG

There are ample opportunities to select preferred offshore service providers, given that often the private client’s key relationship is with their London adviser.

Accessing prompt advice is helped if informal contact has already taken place with the offshore lawyer at conferences and lectures. This is particularly important when meeting regularly is less likely due to geography (for instance, the Cayman Islands). It is also easier to communicate requirements to an individual who you have spoken to in an informal setting.

The key elements required of an offshore legal provider (from a London lawyer’s perspective) are:

– Team spiritedness – a willingness to act and take instructions from lead advisers in London and to act in harmony with a number of different professionals advising the private client and their family;

– Responsiveness – the ultra-wealthy private clients expect to be treated as a priority by their advisers and key to this is providing a perception that instructions are dealt with immediately; and

– A working knowledge of conflict of laws: many clients will have multi-jurisdictional concerns and any advice will necessitate a level of sophistication from the offshore service provider in relation to the interplay of international laws.

All of these qualities are well represented in the offshore world – although, surprisingly, not necessarily always in the largest firms. It is therefore again a matter of working with someone to ascertain whether common goals can be established.

Russell Cohen, partner, Farrer & Co

Our priority when considering the best adviser is always determined by the requirements and expectations of the particular client. Within an increasingly specialised world, this flexible approach to building up relationships with foreign law firms serves us and our clients well.

In practice, the connections made while working on committees, presenting at international conferences, giving seminars, acting for mutual clients or simply chatting over a beer tend to be more significant in determining whose phone number we are likely to reach for than any departmental policy could ever be.

We also benefit from market intelligence gleaned from various other areas of the firm that may have insights, such as our financial services and international private client teams.

When it comes to selecting an offshore adviser for a client from these relationships we would look at: their experience of the issues pertinent to that client; evidence of a pragmatic approach to providing practical advice based on an understanding of the client’s perspective; and enthusiasm to get the best result.

As often as not, first contact on any matter is made when we call offshore lawyers for an ‘informal’ (read ‘non-chargeable’) view, so the contact’s approachability and enthusiasm to assist are vital to building the relationship with them.

Mark Waghorn, partner, BerwinLeighton Paisner

Delivering a seamless service in offshore markets is key to many major real estate finance transactions. For example, when a client needs help to create the UK’s largest single commercial mortgage-backed securitisation in record time and requires support in Jersey, having established relationships with leading independent firms is critical.

But it is not without its challenges. Finding local firms able to deliver the highest quality advice across all the lines of business required can be difficult, particularly in smaller jurisdictions.

We aim to avoid such issues by creating non-exclusive relationships with two or more firms in each jurisdiction. However, without contractual or organisational obligations to fall back on, having non-exclusive relationships means levels of trust and respect have to be even greater. As such, regular face-to-face contact with preferred firms, led by a designated ‘jurisdiction partner’, is critical.

Firms that evaluate overseas relationships on the basis of the volume of work referred back might see this as a wasted effort in offshore markets where referrals back are less likely. But this is necessary if we are to provide the best available advice to our clients.

We believe that building these strong relationships is the only way to ensure that our clients get the best. –