Richards Butler heads for Azerbaijan to tap in to oil work

Richards Butler is set to announce a major boost to its operation in the former CIS and south-west Asia, with the opening of its first Central Asian office in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Staffed by one or two local lawyers and a UK solicitor, the office will focus on finance work generated by the country's oil and gas industries.

The decision has been made against the background of growing international interest in the country's huge oil and gas reserves – sparked by the first oil flows last November.

Last week, Baker & McKenzie officially opened an office in Baku, staffed by two local and two expatriate lawyers, and expects to significantly increase that number by the end of 1998.

However, Richards Butler's move into the country has been delayed by the uncertainty surrounding a new law, passed two weeks ago, which requires foreign firms to apply for a license to operate in the country.

John Emmott, a London-based international trade partner at the firm, which has recently opened offices in Islamabad and Qatar, said he was still assessing the impact of the new law, which might mean “we have to recast our relationship with local lawyers and establish a separate local entity”.

He added: “We haven't moved into Baku before as we felt the amount of work did not justify an office. Now we feel we need to be on the ground.”

According to Emmott, there is a huge demand for financing legal advice as well as day-to-day legal work for the growing numbers of support services following the oil consortiums into the country.

Financial institutions, international funding agencies, the World Bank's projects arm – the International Finance Corporation – and private clients from the Arab Emirates are all directly involved with potential financing deals.

John C Klotsche, chairman of Baker & McKenzie's executive committee, said of his firm's move: “It underscores the continued explosive growth of capital and business centred around the Caspian Sea, and our commitment to the region.”

Edinburgh-based Ledingham Chalmers has had an office in the city since 1995. Managing partner David Laing said of the office: “It has exceeded my expectations in terms of quantity and quality of work.” But he had few concerns over his firm's future as a result of Baker & McKenzie's and Richards Butler's presence. “There is plenty of work to go around,” he said.

In a separate move, Richards Butler has recruited a three-lawyer team of international shipping specialists from Sinclair Roche & Temperley. Partner Jonathan Hunt heads the team and will move to the London office of Richards Butler in June with his two assistants, Nicholas Woo, an English and Singaporean lawyer, and Michael Kim, a Korean.