Holman Fenwick Willan’s Sydney head David Coogans is moving to Hong Kong to join Howse Williams Bowers, a firm established earlier this year by three of Reed Smith Richards Butler’s founding partners in Hong Kong.
Coogans, a shipping lawyer with a focus on collision and salvage work, will join his former Richards Butler colleagues in Hong Kong. He joined Richards Butler Hong Kong in 1989 and became a partner at Richards Butler Hong Kong in 1994. In 2004, he moved to Australia to work in the shipping industry and joined Holman Fenwick’s Sydney office in 2011.
Howse Williams Bowers (HWB), was established on 1 January 2012 when a group of 50 staff including 15 lawyers, led by partners Chris Howse, Chris Williams and Kevin Bowers, resigned from the Hong Kong office of Reed Smith Richards Butler (previously Richards Butler Hong Kong) in order to set up the new firm (9 January 2012).
In addition to Coogans, who will start later this year, HWB has also taken on a seven-member family and matrimonial practice headed by partner Linda Heathfield. The team joins from Hong Kong family law boutique Ip & Heathfield, and they will bring all their clients to the new firm. Heathfield is also a Richards Butler Hong Kong alumni, having worked at the firm in the 1980s.
“The PI clubs we work for want us to have wet work capability. David’s industry knowledge and ability can fill the missing piece of the jigsaw in our shipping practice,” said Howse, managing partner of HWB. “It’s great to be able to work together again with our former colleagues David and Linda.”
The latest recruitment has pushed HWB’s total staff headcount to 70, including eight partners.
4 September 2012 | By Yun Kriegler
Fledgling Hong Kong law firm Howse Williams Bowers (HWB) is still expanding rapidly after a 55-person mass resignation in January from merged global player Reed Smith Richards Butler.
Total staff is now at around 65 and HWB expects to need to double its office space by year’s end, lead partner Chris Howse tells TradeWinds.
HWB is busily recruiting on the maritime side in particular, looking to expand by hiring established talents, especially in the field of casualty law. The current five-man maritime division concentrates mainly on the drier side of shipping, the law of charter parties and bills of lading. Howse makes it clear he is looking for experienced maritime litigators. He is just not looking for them at Reed Smith Richards Butler — not yet, anyhow. A non-enticement covenant remains in place until 30 June.
Long-term expatriate Englishman Howse remains upbeat about having split up the former Richards Butler practice he himself founded 30 years ago. He speaks with clear conviction on the pitfalls involved when independent firms hook up with global giants and on the advantages to lawyers and their clients of maintaining local practices.
He also paints a picture of the Hong Kong maritime legal scene as one where consolidation has narrowed the options for overseas clients, sometimes making it difficult to find suitable maritime representation there.
“The choice of whom to instruct in Hong Kong is very narrow indeed,” said Howse. Alongside the few large international maritime players, such as Holman Fenwick Willan and Ince & Co, there are just a few independent Hong Kong maritime firms on the scene, he says.
Howse started his career with Richards Butler in London in 1975 before being sent out to found and building up a Hong Kong practice that grew at its height to 250 employees. In 2008, he was a grudging participant in the venerable maritime firm’s absorption by US-based Reed Smith, whose roots lie far inland as the representatives of steel baron Andrew Carnegie.
Reed Smith gained one of the best-known international names in maritime law and the Richards Butler lawyers gained the backing of a generalist global corporate law firm — although Howse does not buy that theory.
“I had my reservations,” he said. “Although, to be fair to Reed Smith, they paid a large amount of money for the office and in return we worked very hard to live up to the bargain.”
He mentions no figures but legal professional publications have mentioned seven-figure compensation packages including earnings guarantees.
During their three years as part of Reed Smith, however, Howse says his former colleagues missed running their own business. Less subjectively speaking, he says lots of time went to administrative chores and committee work. Another problem was an inverse economy of scale: a bigger firm has a bigger overhead, says Howse, and in particular the profitable local branches must support loss-making overseas sister offices. As an independent firm, HWB can again control its costs better and the smaller cost base means more competitive hourly rates.
There is also the problem of conflicts — specifically having to say no to new business because of the pre-existing client commitments of one’s overseas sister offices. Howse thinks up to four out of five prospective clients of a global firm like Reed Smith may be off limits because one or another Reed Smith branch already represents the other side in a dispute.
Independent local firms in Europe or the Americas are also now less wary about referring clients to an independent firm in Hong Kong than to a branch of a global firm and Howse cites one overseas lawyer, who said while passing along a referral: “We would never have sent you this work when you were at Reed Smith.”
Howse and the five partners have nearly filled up the 6,000 square feet of office space they rented to accommodate themselves and their fellow Reed Smith refugees. There is room for some 73 but by the end of the year Howse says HWB intends to move into a space twice that big.
“There is a certain attraction for some people in running your own business,” said Howse. “Now it’s a pleasure coming into the office again.”
By Bob Rust Stamford
Published: 20:55 GMT, 18 Apr 12 | updated: 20:55 GMT, 18 Apr 12