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Law firm leaders: Despite Bermuda’s deep recession, reasons for optimism too

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In the midst of challenging economic times, a local law firm is successfully finding opportunities and adapting to circumstances.

And while one of its senior executives has warned that the pain associated with the Island’s multiyear economic contraction will continue to be felt for a while longer, there are reasons for optimism too.

“There may be more pain, not less, to come and the true personal cost has still to be felt. The value of many people’s home is less than their mortgage. I can’t understate how big an impact that will have on the economy, and it will affect this company as much as any,” said Ernest Morrison, head of corporate at Cox Hallett Wilkinson.

“We will continue to look for opportunities. We are still ‘buyers of Bermuda’ and on the international side our clients are of the same view. There is a big push now in the legal community to emphasis that Bermuda is still open to business and that we are still seen as innovators, being positive and open to offshore business in ways that enhance our reputation.

“We can still innovate. The old expression ‘Bermuda Inc’ has been brought back and, although it never went away, a lot of the players are back together the way they used to be.”

CHW can trace its roots back to 1917, and it is that longevity that forms the bedrock for its continuing success.

“The firm has always been closely rooted to local businesses. We have established good global clients, but we have also kept that local connection,” said Jonathan Betts, senior associate.

On-Island opportunities provide the “backbone” of CHW’s work, said Mr Morrison. The firm has helped the Green family with the recent purchases of the Fairmont Hamilton and Sonesta resort site, and it has a long-standing professional connection with the developers of Morgan’s Point.

CHW also picked up a “significant amount of work” surrounding the fate of the Coral Beach & Tennis Club and Horizons. The South Shore club is currently in receivership and the law firm is acting for mortgage holder Swedbank.

Mr Morrison feels the firm’s steeped history and reputation within Bermuda is one reason it continues to attract work from the local community, sometimes from clients whose association with the firm stretches back many generations.

“There are always going to be personal relationships built on past experiences with the firm,” he said. “It is critical to have the faith and trust on the local side.”

While maintaining a healthy chunk of localised work, CHW is also active in the international arena. In 2011 top legal publication Chambers and Partners ranked the firm number three on the Island for corporate and finance work. Mr Betts estimates 80 percent of his work is on the international side. “You have got to build that to complement the local side.”

Mr Morrison added: “Global corporates have us on their lists, many because of long-standing relationships where we have helped them restructure in the past.”

Conflict work gets referred to CHW, and it is seen as a critical part of the firm’s business. “We are swimming in the deep end of the pool but with significantly lower overheads,” explained Mr Morrison. The firm has just over 50 employees.

A nimble approach helps, with employees pitching in to deal with the different types of work that come the firm’s way. As the economy has shifted from expansion to contraction the nature of the work has altered. There may be less call these days for assistance with mergers and acquisitions, but more involving insolvency and refinancing, notes Mr Betts.

“As a corporate practice we cover the whole range, and as lawyers we can still get work [in a contracting economy] even if it’s different to the work we see during an uptick,” he said. “We have a core of good real estate lawyers and litigators. They have a good set of skills and they can adapt. Because of the sort of people we have, we are able to change and move people around. You need good people to be able to do that.”

CHW continues to build its team. A recent appointment was Andrea Moniz-DeSouza, formally a senior associate at Appleby, who has a strong skillset in the area of investment funds, said Mr Morrison.

The firm also provides at least two pupillage openings each year and scholarship opportunities. Mr Betts said: “This has been beneficial in bringing good, young Bermudian lawyers through the firm.”

Mr Morrison believes the economic contraction, now in its fifth year, will continue and points out that what happens in the US economy is critical to what is likely to happen in Bermuda.

He said an economic resurgence in the US will increase confidence in Bermuda, adding: “We just don’t see that in the next 12 months, but hopefully that will change. We are still optimistic.”

Reasons for optimism: Local law firm Cox Hallett Wilkinson has been able to adapt to the changing economic landscape, benefiting from its long-standing on-Island reputation as well as strong relationships with international corporate clients. Pictured is CHW’s head of corporate Ernest Morrison and senior associate Jonathan Betts.
New associate: Andrea Moniz-DeSouza

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Published April 11, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated April 10, 2013 at 7:36 pm)

Law firm leaders: Despite Bermuda’s deep recession, reasons for optimism too

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