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Established Hong Kong law firm's evolution from shipping practice to full services

Some 50 individual companies comprise the Associate Membership of the Hong Kong Shippers' Council. In each issue, we will feature one or more of our Associate Members to introduce them to our readers.

Hong Kong legal firm, Robertsons, formerly Robertson Double & Lee till April 2000, has been in existence for more than 20 years. It has a formal association with the Jin Mo Law Firm in Shanghai and maintains extensive international and local connections with law firms in other jurisdictions with an effective network of correspondents throughout the world.

Christopher Gordon, managing partner and a member of the Hong Kong Shippers' Council's air sub-committee, says: "The firm was founded in 1980 and it was exclusively a shipping practice then, carrying out cases in Admiralty court and in commercial court. The founding partner, Alastair Robertson, used to be a solicitor with Johnson Stokes & Master and had a very active Admiralty practice. He went into partnership with two other solicitors to form Robertson Double & Lee. I joined the firm in 1982."

Since the middle of the 1980s, the firm has evolved into a full service practice although it continues to do shipping related work. 'Today, the firm handles a lot of corporate and commercial law and is no longer dominated by the Admiralty side, although we continue to have the capacity to do that sort of work. I originally did nothing but marine claim work, on the contentious side, the litigation side,' explains Gordon. "During the course of the 1980s, my practice moved form being almost exclusively shipping into commercial litigation. I, personally, have now moved on from the contentious side to the non-contentious corporate side, although I still do maintain the shipping practice in the sense that all the shipping related and transportation related work that the firm has, I handle. I am also managing partner and I head up the corporate department as well."

Christoper Gordon, Robertsons, Managing Partner and a member of the Hong Kong Shipper's Council's air sub-committee

"On the shipping and transportation side, my experience includes carriage by air. I have done a fair amount of carriage by air claims work. There is also work advising freight forwarders and cargo owners, as well as some of the air cargo carriers that operate in and out of Hong Kong."

"Our relationship with the Shippers' Council goes back to the late 1980s when the firm became a member. In those days, as honorary legal adviser, we worked together in establishing the Shippers' Association of Hong Kong which is currently dormant because of the change of emphasis on the conference side," says Gordon.

The firm has an extensive network of associations around the world. Aside from the association with the law firm in Shanghai, it is also looking to open an office in Guangzhou. On operations in China, Gordon says that, "Initially the way to go is to go into partnership with a local firm. Law firms are already allowed to operate as 100% entities in China. In places like Shanghai and Beijing, there are already foreign offices that are fully established law firms, as well as in some of the other major cities in China. But the WTO accession of China will broaden the possibilities as far as foreign law is concerned."

Evolution into full services and commercial practice

While founder Alastair Robertson's practice was very much shipping litigation, he later took on partners with various expertise enabling the firm to offer other services. "As the firm grew and new people with other specialization joined the firm, these generated teams with practices in other fields. We now are comprised of ten partners and 24 lawyers, basically a medium-sized firm. In Hong Kong, the large practices are comprised of a handful of indigenous Hong Kong firms like Johnson Stokes and Deacon. Then there are the foreign or international firms either out of London or the US, which could be very large in terms of numbers. After them are the second-tier, in terms of size, like ourselves who have established here and grown in Hong Kong," describes Gordon.

The third category of legal practice, says Gordon, is made up of a high proportion of sole proprietors or sole practitioners who practice on their own or are small practices of two or three partners. "They tend to either specialise to a great degree or they could be high street practices offering a range of services to potential high street clients," he explains.

On the shipping side, Gordon says that there are largely three areas where lawyers can get involved. "Litigation is a very active area particularly claims work such as cargo claims, claims relating to incidents at sea such as collision or running aground. Then there is general advisory work which companies involved in shipping would require, as well as other types of companies that may require advise. This sort of practice obviously requires a degree of specialization in knowing the business-it could be regulatory, shipping or transportation issues. Then there's the finance side, involving the purchase of ships or of aircraft, or the leasing of aircraft. So within those three categories, there are a number of firms that specialise in specific areas, and they are largely dominated by the London firms. Because of the way our firm has evolved, this is also an aspect of the work that we do. I wouldnOt say that we are specialists in that area because it is not all we do. There are boutique firms that operate in that style, specialising in these areas, but they are few and far between."

Robertsons, Solicitors & Notaries ( are located at The Center, 57th floor, 99 Queen's Road Central; tel. 28682866, fax 28685820 or 28106561. Email: