Insight

Greater level of legal specialisation predicted for the future

Lawyers need to start finding a niche to specialise in, according to Fenech & Fenech’s Managing Partner. Dr Ann Fenech says that specialised lawyers help a practice build their reputation for particular areas of expertise, while ensuring that the firm remains at the forefront of new developments.

Established over 120 years ago, Fenech & Fenech is one of the oldest law firms in Malta. Throughout its history the full-service law firm has been a part of major developments affecting Malta on a national level. Today the firm, together with its corporate service provider Fenlex, has a dynamic staff of around 100, of which 70 are women, keeping the firm at the forefront of its industry by attracting fresh ideas and new legal talent.

Fenech & Fenech is one of the oldest and biggest law firms in Malta, what is the secret to your success?

It is down to our proactive stance in expanding into new areas of expertise. We have always looked at sectors the government wants to develop, recognised the potential and rapidly gained expertise in those areas. Thanks to this approach, we remain the only law firm in Malta with four separate and distinct departments which specialise in the shipping sector. We are also heavily involved in corporate law, tax, IT, aviation and legal drafting. This has provided the opportunity to participate in legal developments on a national level. But the real key to our success is having the right people with the right combination of brains and positive attitude. We go out of our way to headhunt young talented people with a can-do approach. It is the young with the new ideas coupled with the expertise of the older generation that can take things forward. I took over the management of Fenech & Fenech in 2008, and the hallmark of my management is the constant empowerment of our personnel. I am obsessed with encouraging them to find a niche within which to grow. It is essential to give the best possible training to drive people who are fit for purpose. Once training is over, it’s straight into the fire under our guidance. As these people grow within a subject of their choice, so does the firm. We encourage personnel to find a subject they are passionate about and take ownership of it, which also encourages a feel good factor within the firm. It is equally important for clients to feel they are being well looked after and given good no-nonsense advice.

How would you describe your typical client profile?

To describe a typical profile is almost impossible, as we have several departments to cater for different people, backgrounds and circumstances. We are a full-service law firm, and have both a strong international as well as local client base. With Maltese clientele, it varies from a farmer with land issues to the ultra-high-net-worth Maltese entrepreneur opening businesses across Europe. With aviation, we act for charterers, owners as well as financial institutions. With international corporate work, it is often mergers and acquisitions of Malta-based entities or overseas entities through Maltese corporate structures, and in shipping, we handle ship registration, finance, yachting and marine litigation.

What do you see as the firm’s biggest milestones?

We try to stay ahead of the curve in terms of sectors and new opportunities, which has given us a number of firsts, so to speak. We were the first law firm in Malta with a fully-fledged tax department led by a partner with an accounting background. This has been exceptionally good in terms of offering services to private clients. We have a strong commercial department doing corporate work, including mergers and acquisitions and aviation – another sector where Malta has flourished. In some sectors we developed ahead of national policy, such as information technology. Two decades ago, one of our current partners came to us as a fresh IT law graduate. We had just about grasped the importance of IT, let alone IT law, but jumped at the opportunity as the country was moving towards specialised IT services. We soon became the first law firm to also have an IT department. We were also the first – and to date the only – Maltese law firm with a marine litigation department. Returning to Malta in 1992, after six years of practicing marine litigation in the City of London and New Orleans, I wanted to continue on the same path. Back then it was unheard of to specialise in one niche only. Fenech & Fenech was the only firm willing to take the chance in allowing me to set up a specialised department. Not only has it been worth our while, we are to this day still  the only firm with a marine litigation department, which sees a cross section of maritime disputes in both the so-called wet and dry sectors. Over the last five years, a great deal of work has come from financial institutions wishing to enforce mortgages on behalf of banks against vessels, in light of defaulting creditors, showing that shipping has not yet fully recovered from the 2008 crisis.

Your firm is highly specialised in marine litigation, why is Malta so attractive to the shipping industry?

Our geographic location lends itself well to shipping activities. We are on the rhumb line between Gibraltar and the Suez as well as North Africa and Europe, so quite literally at the crossroads. The shipping lane between Malta and Sicily is one of the busiest in the world. The Maltese register is also the only European register open on a 24/7 basis. Many still think Malta’s only advantages for shipping are tax aspects or registration fees, however, a key reason for the flag’s success is that Maltese law offers a huge degree of protection to the financier. Today, banks will only give money to vessels registered in jurisdictions where if any difficulties arise they will be secure, and Maltese law offers significant protection. Over the last few years, our client list has included heavy weights such as Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Hyundai, HSH Nordbank and Commerce Bank. I am very proud of the Maltese legal system, as we punch way above our weight. In the current economic climate, the security Malta offers is a strong selling point. In terms of ship registration, Malta is the largest flag in Europe with over 55 million tons registered under it, which means we have a powerful voice representing owners from all corners of the world.

With the shifting global economic climate, are you seeing an evolution in your profession or how law firms operate?

I was trained by a London law firm for five years, where everyone was highly specialised, before going to a firm in New Orleans where I found the same degree of specialisation. Over the past 20 years, the profession has evolved in all sorts of directions including specialisation. While there is still a number of general practitioners, a vast number of our law graduates are recognising the need to specialise and more and more firms are offering specialist services. In today’s world – Malta included – anyone thinking they can be experts in aviation, shipping and financial services is simply not being realistic. Clients today are very knowledgeable about the technical aspects of their business and expect a deeper knowledge from their advisors too. Increased specialisation is definitely the direction things are and should be going.

EU jurisdictions are facing an increased volume of tighter regulation. Do you see this as a challenge or a threat to the growth of financial services?

I do not believe increased regulation has hindered our work as a firm, because we have always had advanced due diligence processes in place. We didn't suddenly decide to have KYC because of EU regulation, but because it was best practice. Perhaps regulation across Europe has upped the ante a bit, but there has always been a regulatory aspect to our business. Banks are stricter, and it’s not a bad thing in light of what’s happened in the global financial sector. That said, there are occasions of unnecessary bureaucracy, and more common sense is needed. However, the service provider must understand the constraints and the climate within which banks are now operating and vice versa. Malta has made gigantic steps forward in terms of becoming a regulated and flourishing onshore regime. When Malta became a member of the EU, there were quite a number of pessimists heralding the end of financial services in Malta. Not only was it not the end, but it has brought tremendous opportunities to Malta, boosting business thanks to being a fully EU-compliant and English-speaking jurisdiction with a robust legal system. Had we not joined the EU it would have been a great economic and social loss to Malta.

Fenech & Fenech prides itself on staying ahead of the curve, what do you see as the next big thing?

Good question. I think we have reached a stage as a country, where we need to seriously analyse and identify new areas of development because Malta has no raw materials – we live by the services we offer. It is crucial that we find new areas of activity and look at how we can be attractive to those beyond our shores. As far as Fenech & Fenech is concerned, we will remain vigilant and on the lookout for new young promising people to carry on the traditions of the firm, while embarking on new projects with enthusiasm. The best advert for the firm is repeat business by offering cost-effective, sound and specialised advice.

Ann Fenech is the Managing Partner of Fenech and Fenech Advocates, and the Head of the Marine Litigation Department. After qualifying in 1986 she joined the shipping and commercial firm of Holman Fenwick and Willan in London where she stayed until 1991 prior to joining New Orleans firm of Chaffe, McCall, Phillips Toler and Sarpy. She is the President of the Malta Maritime Law Association, Committee Member of the European Maritime Law Association and recently elected member of the Comité Maritime International.

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