City centre practice was founded in the 1870s by Arthur Weightman with a focus on maritime and mercantile and is once again tapping in to Merseyside’s £4bn maritime sector. Tony McDonough reports
When Liverpool law firm Weightmans was founded by Arthur Weightman in the 1870s, Liverpool was one of the busiest ports in the world. So it was inevitable the practice’s main focus would be the maritime and mercantile sectors.
However, as the port declined into the 20th century, Weightmans diversified into many other areas, in particular commercial and insurance. Now a top 45 national firm employing more than 1,200 people, Weightmans has offices across the UK, including Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, London, Manchester and Newcastle.
More than a decade ago, former senior partner Ian Evans, himself a marine lawyer, decided it was time the firm tapped into its latent expertise and history and became a major force once again in maritime law.
His vision has been realised with Weightmans now having established its marine team as a leading player in Liverpool city region’s £4bn powerhouse maritime sector, and beyond to the wider transport, logistics and energy markets. The department is headed by partners Phil James and Mike Burns.
“What Ian did was bring together a number of specialisms that we already had in-house into the team – and our marine brand has seen rapid growth since 2006,” said Phil. “We are strong in our traditional area of insurance but our client base is now probably 50/50 with commercial.”
The marine team comprises six lawyers in Liverpool complemented by lawyers in Glasgow, Manchester and London whose expertise can be called upon as and when required. The team also a Master Mariner on call.
Phil explained: “Captain Alan Whitely is based mainly at sea, working on offshore support vessels and he works for us on a consultancy basis. His knowledge and expertise is invaluable. Often we can call him up and he will give us a definitive answer straight away. He is an amazing resource to have to hand.”
In September, Weightmans secured a new instruction that, according to Phil, was “a real statement” about the firm’s growing reputation in the maritime sector. It is now the principal legal advisor on Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram’s multi-billion pound Mersey Tidal Power Project, which could provide zero carbon electricity to a million homes.
“We were absolutely delighted to be appointed to assist with such an important project,” he added. “It really demonstrates the full breadth of our capabilities.”
It’s client list now reads like a who’s who of the Liverpool city region maritime industry, including Merseytravel, advising on its new Mersey Ferry project; Bibby Marine on the building of new offshore vessels; Peel Ports, for whom it acts on contentious and non-contentious matters; and commercial litigation for shipping giant Maersk and Essar Oil UK, which operates the former Shell oil refinery on the banks of the Mersey.
Mike Burns said key to the team’s growth has been not only the strong relationships it has maintained with clients over many years, but also with other professional service companies which operate in the city region maritime sector, since rarely are client needs confined to purely legal issues. Its membership of Mersey Maritime has proved hugely valuable, he added.
“Liverpool city region is a microcosm of the entire maritime industry and there is a healthy interaction between local companies in the sector,” explained Mike. “For example, we have great relationships with local marine surveyors, including Brookes Bell, Taylor Marine and LGSA Marine.
“It is very important for us to support the local market and that is reciprocated. There is now a healthy mindset among businesses in the sector that promoting the region as a one-stop shop centre of excellence generates a greater prize to be shared in terms of inward investment in all our services from the UK and globally. There was a time you could be in a room with other maritime firms and there was a certain stand offish-ness . That has changed significantly and what we now have is a real sense of community.”
Phil added: “Beyond working on high profile jobs for our sector clients, our team is active in networking and supporting local maritime clients, whether by delivering know how and training on trending issues such as cyber exposures in the marine world, to attending maritime social events. We take part each year in a charity day organised by MA Logistics which this year raised funds for Ronald McDonald House, St Vincents and The Starr Trust. Being part of that community and taking part in such events is incredibly rewarding.
We also regularly host “Weightmans Wednesdays” in our Old Hall Street reception, where clients come to hear interesting speakers from local businesses, and network across the numerous sectors covered by Weightmans’ client base.
National and international
But, of course, Weightmans is a national firm and its work takes it across the UK and to other parts of the world. Not only are Phil and Mike often to be found on the West Coast mainline to London, but also sometimes on planes to far flung destinations.
“We are going toe-to-toe with the London giants in marine law on a daily basis,” said Phil. “There is healthy competition for work locally and the competition in the London market is incredibly fierce. I think Liverpool and London are now the two main UK centres for marine and transport expertise and it is not unusual to see London firms trying to win work up here.”
In October Weightmans acquired Newcastle law firm, Watson Burton. Phil added: “It is early days but that deal has gone down well with our clients in the transport and logistics sector.”
Both partners see huge potential for the further growth of its marine team and, in particular, they believe Liverpool city region could thrive in a post-Brexit UK as the country’s import and export focus switches more to North America.
Phil said: “Peel’s massive investment into the Liverpool2 container terminal could prove to be hugely significant and the post-Brexit environment has very positive implications for transatlantic trade and for the city region.
“Shipping lines such as Maersk and MSC have both made big commitments to Liverpool this year. They are global companies and they have made strong statements that they want to do business here.”
Weightmans has scooped numerous awards, receiving widespread industry recognition for excellence. They have included the Large Law Firm of the Year award at the Liverpool Law Society Awards 2019, Best Use of Technology and Finalist for Law Firm of the Year at the Modern Law Awards 2019, Top Employers Institute 2018 (11th year running) and was shortlisted for Firm of the Year at the British Legal Awards 2018.
Mike added that despite its growing national and global reach, Weightmans Liverpool HQ is the firm’s heartbeat and its activity in the vibrant city region remains absolutely core to its growth plans, not least since its marine clients in the region do business internationally which presents wider commercial opportunities.
He said: “Our clients’ customers and wider contacts can see the professional service excellence we have here, and the reduced regional overheads. With an absolutely premium offering and value for money, what’s not to like?