The offshore world has had better years. When, in 2016, news broke of a massive leak of data from Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca, the firms that feature in our annual Top 30 Offshore Law Firms did not rush to comment. In fact, most of them declined outright.

There was a palpable sense that they did not feel they could be associated with Mossack Fonseca. Better known as a company formation business rather than one that carried out big corporate deals, the Panamanian firm was a world away from the offshore magic circle.

The debate over whether individuals using offshore structures should have to make this public was already raging when the ‘Paradise Papers’ were published

And then, in November last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released another huge batch of data sourced from offshore. Except this time the source of the data was Appleby – one of the world’s largest and most established offshore firms.

Appleby promptly swung into dam­age limitation mode, asserting in statements that the data published by the ICIJ and its media partners had been hacked – not leaked – and that there was “no evidence of wrongdoing, either on the part of ourselves or of our clients”.

It added: “We are an offshore law firm that advises clients on legitimate and lawful ways to conduct their business. We do not tolerate illegal behaviour. It is true that we are not infallible. Where we find that mistakes have happened, we act quickly to put things right and we make the necessary notifications to the relevant authorities.

“Having researched the ICIJ’s allegations, we believe they are unfounded and based on a lack of understanding of the legiti­mate and lawful structures used in the offshore sector.”

graph: gender diversity at offshore firms for top 30 offshore law firms feature

The debate over whether individuals using offshore structures should have to make this public was already raging when the ‘Paradise Papers’ were published, thanks to a requirement in the latest iteration of the EU’s directive on anti-money laundering for national trust registers.

The Paradise Papers leak broke just a month or so after the devastating Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean. Of the major offshore centres, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) were worst hit and several firms were forced to close down their offices there and put business continuity plans in place.

Luckily for the majority, the nature of offshore means that those firms with offices elsewhere in the world had BVI lawyers outside the jurisdiction who were able to pick up the slack. The BVI Commercial Court temporarily relocated to St Lucia until January 2018 and firms such as Harneys sent litigators to ‘pop-up’ offices to handle hearings.

Meanwhile, the BVI Financial Services Commission opened up its online registry to users outside the islands for the first time, to enable business to keep moving.

Many of the firms operating in the BVI contributed to the Hurricane Irma relief fund, with the island’s biggest firm, Harneys, announcing it was donating $200,000 (£140,000) to reconstruction efforts.

The firms themselves and their staff all seem to have come through the hurricane relatively unscathed physically, and the BVI business community worked hard to reinforce an ‘open for business’ message in the days after the storm.

Appleby resets

So, after a year with two major negative news stories for offshore, how have the sector’s biggest firms fared?

The Paradise Papers allegations hit towards the end of 2017 and are unlikely to have had much impact, although Appleby has in fact slipped down the rankings of the Offshore Top 30 this year. Only a few years ago it was second by lawyer numbers, snapping at the heels of Maples and Calder.

With Maples now consolidated at the top of the rankings, fielding more than 300 lawyers worldwide, Appleby is in sixth place with fewer than 200.

Walkers and Mourant Ozannes retain the second and third positions they held last year, but Carey Olsen and Ogier move into fourth and fifth. This means that, for the first time since we have been compiling the Offshore Top 30, there are more Channel Islands-headquartered firms in the top five than Caribbean firms. Both have been hiring and Carey Olsen launched in Bermuda, its ninth jurisdiction, last year.

This growth has largely taken place in the past five years. In 2013 Mourant Ozannes was third but was surrounded in the top five by Caribbean firms.

Collas Crill is following hard in the footsteps of its larger Channel Islands rivals, adopting a similar strategy – a Guernsey-Jersey merger followed by international expansion. Last year Collas Crill launched in the BVI and opened a representative office in Hong Kong.

The firm is now consolidated as one of the largest 10 offshore firms worldwide – a remarkable growth story in just seven years since the merger between Collas Day and Crill Canavan that formed a 15-partner outfit. Collas Crill now has 35 partners and employs almost 300 people.

The top 10 firms employed 4,559 staff in total last year, up by just over 7 per cent from 4,250 the previous year. However, growth in partner numbers was smaller at just 3.8 per cent, with the top 10 collectively adding 23 partners year-on-year.

Stability among smaller offshore firms

Lower down the table the picture is different. While a couple of firms have seen quite large percentage rises in their lawyer numbers, generally the trend among the smaller offshore firms has been stable, with many firms either adding or losing one or two lawyers year-on-year. At a firm with only 15 or 16 lawyers, this can mean a 5 or 6 per cent increase or decrease in lawyer numbers.

The firms ranked from 11 to 30 collectively saw their lawyer numbers dip last year, from 472 to 463. Staff numbers for this group remained fairly stable, as did part­ner numbers.

Among these firms Wakefield Quin stands out for its growth in lawyer numbers. A small merger between the Bermuda firm and a local boutique meant it grew by 22 per cent, an addition of four lawyers. Bedell Cristin saw its lawyer numbers rise by 16 per cent as it added 10 lawyers to its roster. Staff numbers were largely unchanged at both firms.

The most dramatic ranking drop this year is for Hatstone Lawyers. The Jersey firm is also one of the newest in the rankings, having been founded in only 2011, but after climbing to a ranking high of 15 in 2017 it drops back to 21 this year with a 35 per cent fall in lawyer numbers, from 31 to 20.

It is noticeable that the gap between the largest 11 firms – including Bedell Cristin – and the rest is widening. Bedell Cristin now has nearly twice as many lawyers as Cayman firm Campbells and 50 more staff members.

While all of the five largest firms now have 200 lawyers or more, the smallest 10 all have 20 or fewer, highlighting the size gap in this market.

Further consolidation among the smaller players is likely as they seek to keep hold of a slice of this increasingly bifurcating sector.

Offshore trends

In all likelihood as a result of the Panama Papers furore but also as a wider acknow­ledgement of cyber security risk, a number of firms started looking at their information security in more detail last year.

Appleby hired a head of information security, Michael Hughes, and said it had “made a number of changes to our IT environment to make our data more secure”. Slightly cryptically, it added: “We have also done things which are way and above what any other firm is doing.”

Mourant Ozannes decided to gain ISO 27001 certification, which required the firm to demonstrate it had a rigorous information security management system programme. The process of getting the  certification included several senior hires.

Other firms that said they had made investments in cyber security included Cains and HSM, while several more said they had invested in technology.

In Gibraltar there was a distinct theme among firms – the development of fintech and blockchain. All the firms have been seeking to demonstrate their expertise in this developing area of law, contributing to regulatory developments in the territory.

In terms of deals, last year saw the usual mixture of large M&As with offshore structuring, a number of financings and refinancings, and a handful of IPOs.

Firms reported several sizeable deals with Asian clients, but clients also came from Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

These growth markets will remain important in the coming year.

The Offshore Top 30 2018

Maples still leads, but Walkers closes the gap

Maples and Calder retains its position as the world’s largest offshore firm and the only one in the rankings with more than 300 lawyers. On a net basis the firm added two lawyers to its headcount but gained six partners last year.

Maples also employs a large number of non-fee-earning staff, with a total headcount in its legal business of 862. Combined with its 726-strong fiduciary operation, the firm therefore employs close to 1,600 people worldwide and last year had the biggest growth in absolute numbers of staff of any of the offshore firms.

Strategically, Maples’ biggest move was its push to extend its Irish offering into London

Strategically, Maples’ biggest move was its push to extend its Irish offering into London. It transferred European aviation head Donna Ager and investment funds partner Adam Donoghue to the City from Dublin, and recruited Davis Polk & Wardwell partner Nigel Wilson to bolster the team in a response to more demand for international work from UK clients and also Brexit.

In Hong Kong the firm recruited six lawyers including private equity partner Everton Robertson and corporate and funds partner Matt Roberts, who had both worked at Maples previously. In the BVI the firm recruited Three Stone barrister Adrian Francis as a partner.

MaplesFS gained an unlimited funds licence in Bermuda, which enables it to offer independent trustee services to funds.

With a net gain of 28 lawyers, Walkers closes the size gap on Maples and consolidates last year’s move into second place, which came courtesy of its Guernsey merger with AO Hall. Overall, the firm grew by 12 per cent, increasing staff numbers from 546 to 614.

The firm’s fiduciary business, relaunched after the 2012 sale of Walkers Management Services, now employs 70 staff.

Walkers said it had invested in technology and recruited a new chief marketing officer for the Americas.

With a net gain of 28 lawyers, Walkers closes the size gap on Maples

Although on a net basis partner numbers dropped from 93 to 92, Walkers reported several partner-level hires. In the BVI it recruited litigator Iain Tucker, formerly a counsel at Hogan Lovells, and finance and corporate lawyer Patrick Ormond, previously counsel at Carey Olsen. In Hong Kong litigator Callum McNeil joined as a partner from Campbells.

In Dublin, PIMCO senior legal counsel Nicholas Blake Knox, Arthur Cox tax partner Aisling Burke and Dillon Eustace funds partner Sarah Maguire all joined as partners.

Although total staff and fee-earner numbers dropped year-on-year at Mourant Ozannes, an increase of 23 in its qualified lawyer headcount means the firm stays in third place.

The firm employed 453 legal staff last year and just under 300 fee-earners, of whom 238 were lawyers. Mourant’s small fiduciary business employed 60 people.

The most significant strategic move by Mourant last year was its decision to make two non-lawyers up to the partnership: chief operating officer Keith Pearse and corporate services managing director Ed Fletcher. In total, eight new partners have been appointed since February 2017, bringing total numbers to 60 – a net gain of five since last year’s Offshore Top 30.

The focus on operations was reflected in several other hires to the firm’s business  services team. Most of this recruitment was in Jersey, where Mourant recruited a chief information officer, chief risk and compliance officer, global operations director for corporate services, group financial controller and head of learning. In the Cayman Islands it brought on board a new business development manager.

The hires were part of Mourant’s efforts to become the first offshore firm to achieve information security standard certification, ISO 27001.

Carey Olsen climbs the rankings again after a November 2017 launch in Bermuda. The firm has two partners in its ninth jurisdiction – Michael Hanson and Keith Robinson – and plans to expand the office.

The firm now has 210 lawyers, up by 15 (7.7 per cent) compared with the previous year, and 400 staff in total.

The greatest increase came in the Caribbean with the firm’s BVI and Cayman offices seeing 30 per cent growth in headcount in the past 12 months. Hires were mainly at counsel or consultant level from rival offshore firms.

Partner numbers rose to 51 from 49 the previous year thanks to the Bermuda launch and internal promotions.

Otherwise, the firm invested in tech, introducing an e-discovery platform and moving towards electronic bundles for litigation.

After a year of lateral hiring Ogier is closing in on Carey Olsen, adding 25 lawyers to bring its lawyer headcount to 200 and celebrating its 150th anniversary in style.

A number of hires were at a senior level, with former Appleby Guernsey managing partner Gavin Ferguson, former Mourant Ozannes London head Simon Felton, and former Harneys Cayman litigation head Marc Kish all joining last year. The firm also picked up two partners from Bedell Cristin in Jersey.

Partner numbers rose from 53 to 57.

During the year Carey Olsen brought on board Caribbean capabilities in the Channel Islands, which it said helped it to maintain its service to clients when BVI services shut down after the hurricanes at the end of 2017.

There were also management changes at the firm, which appointed banking head Angus Davison to its executive. Nick Patterson was appointed as finance director to allow chief operating officer Jamie Bore to focus more on strategy.

Appleby had a tough year, with the headline undoubtedly the massive leak of data known as the ‘Paradise Papers’ in November 2017. However, it also saw a decrease in headcount, with total staff numbers dropping slightly and lawyer numbers falling from 205 to 184 year-on-year.

Acknowledging the impact of the Paradise Papers, Appleby said: “We have made a number of changes to our IT environment to make our data more secure”

Partner numbers fell by three, from 60 to 57.

As a result, Appleby falls two places in the rankings – it was second just a couple of years ago.

The firm said its focus remained strongly on the US, Asian and African markets.

Acknowledging the impact of the Paradise Papers, Appleby said: “We have made a number of changes to our IT environment to make our data more secure but we’ve also done things that are way above what any other firm is doing.”

The firm hired Michael Hughes as head of information security last year, as well as naming former Olswang chief operating officer and chief financial officer Simon Glynn as chief financial officer.

Harneys was one of the biggest recruiters last year, with total headcount increasing by 10 per cent, from 327 to 362. It now has 162 qualified lawyers, up from 147. The firm also employs almost 150 staff in its fiduciary arm.

The firm revealed it had 16 equity partners out of a total of 51, the first time it has provided this number.

Harneys was busy on both the legal and fiduciary fronts. It launched in Shanghai in November and moved Kristy Calvert from Hong Kong to lead the new venture. The firm also acquired Midocean Management and Trust Services from Maitland.

A total of three new partners were recruited from other firms: litigator Nick Hoffman from Cayman firm Priestleys, Travers Thorp Alberga banking partner Nicole Pineda, and Appleby Hong Kong partner Maggie Kwok.

Michael Buhre also joined the firm in Cayman as the chief operating officer for Harneys Fiduciary, from a finance background.

Litigator Christian Luthi was elected as Conyers Dill & Pearman’s chairman last year, succeeding co-chairs Narinder Hargun and David Lamb who stepped down after five years.

In early 2018 the firm announced it had hired Paul Naylor as chief operating officer following the retirement of Stephen DeSilva. Naylor joined from Linklaters, where he was business manager for litigation and chief operating officer for the India practice.

In early 2018 the firm hired Paul Naylor as chief operating officer.

Litigator Christian Luthi was elected as Conyers Dill & Pearman’s chairman last year

The firm saw headcount increase by 14 staff members in total, with the addition of seven lawyers.

Conyers is due to close its Dubai office by June 2018, relocating associate Oliver Simpson to London to run a MENA desk in the City.

There were no partner-level laterals, and partner numbers remained stable at 61.

Collas Crill’s rapid growth continues and it moves one spot up the rankings with the largest headcount increase of any of the top 30. An 18 per cent increase in staff numbers means the Channel Islands firm now employs 210 people, up from 178 last year, including 80 lawyers, up from 68.

Much of the growth was thanks to the merger with BVI firm Farara Kerins in January 2017. Collas Crill also launched a representative office in Hong Kong last year, building its presence in Asia from its Singapore office, which has been open for some time. Former MJ Hudson partner Simon Fraser is leading the Hong Kong work as a consultant.

There were three partner hires in Jersey, including that of Mourant Ozannes partner Mike Williams. At the start of 2018 Collas Crill recruited Kate Stanfield as head of knowledge from CMS and Sandy Salter as compliance head from Baker Tilly in the BVI.

Although its headcount went up substantially last year, with a 10 per cent hike in staff numbers and an extra five lawyers, more significant growth at Conyers and Collas Crill means Gibraltar firm Hassans drops two spots down the table this year.

A key focus during 2017 was fintech. The firm has been heavily involved in Gibraltar’s efforts to establish itself as a ‘crypto
harbour’, and has formed a dedicated fintech team.

Hassans has been heavily  involved in Gibraltar’s efforts to establish itself as a ‘crypto harbour’

Hassans is currently working on a restructure that will result in the legal practice being operated via a limited company
rather than a general partnership. The aim is to complete this within the next six to 12 months.

There were no partner hires, but Hassans appointed a new business development director last year.

With little change in its headcount, Bedell Cristin is holding steady at 11th place in the Offshore Top 30.

Last year was the first full year as a standalone law firm, following the sale of Bedell Trust, now known as Ocorian. The firm says it delivered on its first-year budget and strategy, and last year had the most successful financial performance in the law firm’s history.

Bedell Cristin appointed 42 Bedford Row CEO Neil May as its new chief operating officer in late 2017

Bedell Cristin appointed 42 Bedford Row CEO Neil May as its new chief operating officer in late 2017. May’s recruitment followed a series of appointments to the management team during the year, inclu­ding heads of IT, risk and compliance, and marketing and business development.

Campbells reported no change in its lawyer headcount last year and only a handful of staff hires.

The firm said its fintech practice had been particularly busy.

Campbells recruited Mo Haque QC as a partner to head up its office in the BVI from Crown Office Chambers in London. Meanwhile, in late 2017 Jeremy Lightfoot moved from the BVI office to Hong Kong and Ross McDonough QC moved back to Cayman along with senior associateLiam Faulkner.

Travers Thorp Alberga gained two lawyers last year but its total headcount dropped from 58 to 54. It gained one partner and keeps its ranking in the top 30.

There were no significant strategic moves last year. The firm continued to advise on a range of transactions from its offices in Cayman, the BVI and Hong Kong.

Senior partner Anthony Travers was a particularly outspoken voice during the Paradise Papers scandal, speaking out in defence of the offshore industry in both local and international media.

Although Forbes Hare has two fewer lawyers than at this time last year, with numbers falling from 27 to 25, it rises up the top 30 rankings thanks to more dramatic decreases at other firms.

Last year saw Forbes Hare open an office on the island of Nevis

Last year saw the firm open an office on the island of Nevis to complement its Cayman and BVI presence. It also moved Catherine Ross, previously head of London, to Singapore to head up corporate and fund services there.

Forbes Hare is currently investing in a new corporate services IT platform.

Manx firm Cains saw a sizeable drop in lawyer numbers year-on-year, from 32 to 24 – although its staff headcount fell by just two, to 57. Partner numbers were unchanged at nine.

Last year Cains joined the wave of firms selling off fiduciaries, offloading this arm to First Names Group. It also invested “significantly” in IT, notably in information security systems, HR and compliance.

Last year Cains joined the wave of firms selling off fiduciaries

Cains announced one lateral hire, recruiting First Deemster, or judge, David Doyle for its litigation department. Doyle is yet to start work and will be of counsel at the firm.

Gibraltar’s Isolas celebrated its 125th anniversary last year. Size-wise it was pretty stable, adding one lawyer to bring its legal headcount to 24. The number of partners at the firm did not change.

As with some of its competitors, fintech and blockchain was a focus through the year, with regulatory advice and thought leadership on the topic a busy area for Isolas.

In early 2018 Isolas acquired family office consulting firm Legacy Consulting. The acquisition boosted Isolas’ private client team and saw the arrival of the business’s owner, Emma Lejeune, and two lawyers.

Triay & Triay’s lawyer headcount decreased from 27 to 23 year-on-year and fee-earner numbers dropped from 35 to 29. Its
partnership of 11 was unchanged.

Partner Robert Vasquez QC retired from the partnership in June and became a consultant.

The Triay & Triay fintech team grew – a theme among Gibraltar firms in 2017.

While the number of qualified lawyers at Guernsey firm Babbé dropped last year, from 25 to 22, its partnership expanded through the internal promotions of corporate and commercial lawyers Robert Varley and Katherine Hitchens in April 2017, and of trusts lawyer Rajah Abusrewil in September.

In early 2018 Hitchens was named head of corporate, taking over from Stuart Tyler.

The firm remains the largest practice in the Channel Islands to operate in just a
single jurisdiction

Voisin Law rises up the rankings after a busy year in which it added lawyers and made two up to its partnership. Corporate lawyer Kate Anderson and advocate Clare Nicolle joined the partnership.

Voisin Law rises up the rankings after a busy year

The firm said it had seen a steady flow of corporate and commercial work in 2017 and expected this to increase in the coming year. Private client, wills and probate, banking and finance and employment were also busy, while Voisin noted a consistent flow in work from fiduciaries reacting to changes in their clients’ tax profiles.

Voisin’s affiliated trust company, Volaw Group, now has 110 staff.

In May 2017 Wakefield Quin merged with smaller Bermuda firm HCS Law, including its corporate administration company, Hollis Corporate Services. The tie-up, which included two lawyers, helped increase Wakefield Quin’s lawyer headcount to 22 from 18 the previous year, and the firm now employs 53 people in total.

As a result, Wakefield Quin moves up into the top 20.

Since its foundation in 2011 in Jersey, Hatstone has been through several guises. At the start of 2018 it continued its development through a merger with BVI fund administration business the Folio Group. The merger saw the arrival of Calum McKenzie and Daniel Cann to lead the expanded business’s administration work.

Hatstone also recruited Walkers finance partner Alex Carus last year.

The firm now has 45 staff, including 20 lawyers.

The smallest of the four Gibraltar firms in the top 30, Triay Stagnetto Neish drops down two places in the rankings with a reduction of four (18 per cent) in its lawyer headcount. Total staff numbers remained more or less stable at 39.

The firm continues to be led by managing partner Louis B Triay; firm founder Louis W Triay remains a consultant. All the firm’s nine partners are male.

Cayman firm HSM makes its third appearance in the top 30, rising one place. The firm continues to grow, last year adding one lawyer and five non-lawyer fee-earners, and gaining five staff on a net basis – although partner numbers were stable at five.

At the start of 2018 HSM hired corporate lawyer Peter de Vere from Campbells as its new head of corporate and commercial

At the start of 2018 HSM hired corporate lawyer Peter de Vere from Campbells as its new head of corporate and commercial, following on from the 2016 recruitment of private client head Robert Mack from Mourant Ozannes.

It was a quiet year for Bermuda firm Cox Hallett Wilkinson, with no change in headcount and no significant strategic moves or hires. The firm employs 50 members of staff including 30 fee-earners of whom 16 are lawyers and six partners.

Jersey firm Viberts added two lawyers last year, bringing the number of qualified legal staff to 16, including seven partners. Of those, four are women, giving Viberts the highest female partner proportion in the Top 30.

There were no senior lateral hires or departures at Viberts last year and the firm did not provide details of strategic changes.

Like Cox Hallett Wilkinson, Bermuda’s MJM reported no change in total staff numbers, remaining steady at 50 year-on-year. Fee-earner numbers decreased from 24 to 20 and lawyer numbers from 16 to 15, but the firm still has six partners, all in the equity. The main investment priority last year was technology investment but otherwise there were no major strategic initiatives and no hires, with the firm saying things had been “very steady”.

Cayman firm Solomon Harris re-enters the top 30 this year. It now employs 29 staff in total including 17 fee-earners, of whom 15 are lawyers. The firm has a Zurich representative office, but recently relocated a partner from there back to Cayman as a result of slowing demand from European investors in the wake of Brexit.

Solomon Harris relocated a partner from Zurich to Cayman as a result of slowing demand from European investors in the wake of Brexit

The firm said its emerging market practice for private equity, hedge fund and venture capital formation and transactional work was growing rapidly. Portfolio insurance companies were introduced to the Cayman statute book in 2015 and Solomon Harris says it has formed the majority of these vehicles.

As well as traditional offshore work, Solomon Harris has a buoyant Cayman transactional and real estate practice, and also reported strong growth in providing advice to high-net-worth individuals.

While lawyer numbers at Isle of Man firm DQ Advocates remained steady at 14 last year, the firm saw a reduction of one in its fee-earners. Declines in headcount at other firms push it up the rankings. In 2017 Mark Dougherty took over as managing partner after the retirement in 2016 of Tom Maher for health reasons. Stephen Dougherty became corporate and commercial head. DQ also promoted employment head Leanne McKeown to director.

Last year DQ launched an equality e-learning product in association with an employment law training company, Legal-Island, with the aim of filling a gap in terms of access to Isle of Man-specific equality training for local employers.

Guernsey firm AFR saw a small decrease in its headcount last year, with lawyer numbers dropping from 14 to 13 and staff numbers from 33 to 31. It still had four partners. The firm did not provide any details of its
strategic initiatives last year.

Simcocks saw its lawyer – and accordingly fee-earner – numbers dip by two last year and the firm now has 13 qualified lawyers. The Isle of Man practice therefore slips to the bottom of the rankings, although it maintains a position in the top 30.

The firm redesigned its website last year to streamline it and add more information.

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