Offshore law firm Mourant Ozannes is set to open two new offices in Hong Kong and the BVI in 2012. These offices are complementary to the planned growth of the Cayman Islands office and may actually contribute to it, says Neal Lomax managing partner at Mourant Ozannes in Cayman.
Mourant Ozannes provides Cayman, Jersey and Guernsey legal advice, which makes the Cayman Islands one of its key hubs. The Cayman office services much of the work that originates from the North and South American time zones.
“Our role within the firm is becoming increasingly important because our Cayman offering is now providing the impetus for our international expansion,” says Lomax. “So we have extended our Cayman team in Europe quite extensively over the past year. We are also opening a Hong Kong office early in 2012 with a view to servicing clients in the Far East as well.”
Asia is however only one of the key emerging markets. The other one is Latin and South America and in particular Brazil, says Lomax, which a lot of the Cayman firms have on their radar screen. The Football World Cup 2014 and the Olympic Games 2016 are going to be staged in the country and could lead to some high M&A activity in the foreseeable future.
In addition Lomax sees good potential across the spectrum of law firm activities coming from Brazil, including corporate finance, the establishment of investment funds, banking and general finance opportunities.
Like in Latin and South America, Lomax says, emerging market growth in Asia will be beneficial to Cayman.
“The function of our Hong Kong office to a great extent will be to generate business that Cayman will service, in addition to the creation and establishing work that will all flow back into Cayman.”
This will generate fees both for the general registrar of companies and CIMA. Even the BVI office will not be damaging to Cayman’s offering.c
“In the BVI we are also opening up early next year and again that should be complementary to Cayman as opposed to competing,” Lomax says. “A lot of the impetus for setting up in the BVI comes from the establishment of a Hong Kong office and right now quite a few clients and intermediaries in the Far East like to set up structures which involve Cayman and BVI vehicles, so we need the BVI offering as well to enable us to properly service that work.”
Lomax specifically refers to a preference for combining BVI companies and Cayman funds and the layering of BVI companies between Cayman companies that are at the top and bottom of a structure.
In terms of the different practices in the Cayman office, Lomax says all parts of Mourant’s business are currently growing. “That is just the stage of development that we are at as a firm.
This is in part due to having to catch up to the firm’s larger hubs in Jersey and Guernsey, where Mourant Ozannes is the largest firm by some margin, making the presence in the three jurisdictions slightly uneven. “We are looking to remedy that as soon as we can,” says Lomax. As a result Mourant Ozannes is probably the firm which is expanding most significantly in Cayman right now, with other firms either consolidating or allocating resources to other offices.
The planned move into a new office space in the Solaris Avenue Building at Camana Bay in 2012, where Mourant Ozannes is the anchor tenant, is aimed at accommodating the future growth of the firm in Cayman. Mourant’s objective for 2012 is to continue to grow the Cayman practice in all core practice areas – funds, finance and commercial litigation – and increase the awareness of the Cayman service offering.
“We have built critical mass in the last two years in challenging market conditions. We are hoping to continue to do that,” states Lomax. “Also we have made great strides towards building up the education of our Cayman offering. We are looking to consolidate and improve on that. The other near term objective is being sensitive to our social responsibilities, to make a contribution to community as we expand. I think it is really important that we don’t lose sight of that.”
While the current development stage of the firm points to near term growth there are nonetheless a number of challenges that the firm faces, most notably global market conditions, increased regulation, the shift in economic power to the Far East and general political threats to offshore financial centres.
The latter is increasing, says Lomax, who sees a tendency for the onshore jurisdictions to try and deflect attention away from their own problems and offshore financial centres are an easy target.
Mourant Ozannes is therefore heavily involved as a firm in the IFC Forum, an organisation started by offshore law firms to defend the role of offshore financial centres, and works very hard to try to educate people onshore about the positive role that offshore financial centres play, Lomax says.
Onshore regulation, such as Dodd Frank and the EU Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive, is another challenge which could have a depressing effect on business, particularly when it makes business in Cayman, eg setting up fund structures, more expensive.
At the same time regulation can also offer opportunities, says Lomax. “One of the areas that the government is focused on, rightly so I think, is trying to attract more business to actually relocate to Cayman and for some of these businesses currently located onshore to establish a presence in Cayman. I think the increased onshore regulation will just add some impetus to that. That is one of the reasons why reviews such as the immigration review are very timely.”
Asked what he would like to see as a result of such a review, he notes that a delicate balance needs to be achieved. “Ideally one would like the outcome to be a position where Caymanians feel comfortable that their interests are adequately protected and the stakeholders in the financial services industry remain confident that the industry can remain competitive within very challenging market conditions.”
He says the important thing from his perspective is that the communication between government and the private sector continues to be open and that businesses can stay flexible to be able to make adjustments as market conditions change.