With over 20 years’ experience as a lawyer, and nearly 10 years working at Ogier, Simon Dinning has worked through some of the biggest transformations the legal profession has seen for generations. From the early days of email, to remote working and the use of AI, technology has played an important role in fast forwarding change. New strategies, different attitudes, and more innovative ways of thinking have done the rest.
As a partner and Global Head of Corporate at Ogier, Simon oversees multiple jurisdictions, bringing services and professionals together, developing talent, and nurturing relationships with clients. He has worked in London and the BVI, for onshore and offshore firms, moving to Jersey four and a half years ago.
“One of the biggest changes has been to the way in which we deliver our services.” Simon said, “When I first began working as a lawyer, with Herbert Smith in the mid-1990s, in the days of no external email, lawyers primarily dispensed advice. Much time was spent in all-party drafting meetings and the concept of a travelling draft document still existed – literally a physical document sent between the parties for comment, usually in a myriad of different colours. Time and technology moved quickly. Deals were often done electronically, meaning reduced client contact, and that is certainly a feature of work as an offshore lawyer."
However, Simon stresses, that with the advance of technology, relationships have become no less important, "in fact" he says "we have become even more client focused. We now place a much greater emphasis, in an ever more competitive market, on developing and enhancing relationships with our clients. We aim to find out what makes them tick and to demonstrate that we have a good grasp of what they are trying to achieve.
“As an offshore lawyer, around 80% of my work is now with onshore intermediaries, e.g. UK, US, South African and Russian law firms. While we lead on some deals, we are often playing the offshore role in a much larger transaction. The ability to blend onshore and offshore experience enables us to understand where our part of the jigsaw fits.”
Simon got a taste for international transactions early on in his career. A year after qualifying he was off to Holland for the merger of British Steel and its Netherlands equivalent, Hoogovens – a £4 billion deal. He was involved in the merger of British American Tobacco and Rothmans and had the pleasure of negotiating, on several occasions, with the Slovenian government in Ljubljana while acting for a US client.
From Herbert Smith, he was head-hunted by Shaw Pittman, a Washington firm, to set up its corporate offering in London, worked with DLA Piper, then, following two years in the British Virgin Islands, joined Ogier in 2008 setting up and developing the BVI operation in London. He ran the Ogier London office for five and half years before moving to Jersey, where he practices BVI and Jersey law.
“You necessarily become more of a generalist when you work offshore, but the move to be more flexible in approach and more multi-faceted in the services that you can deliver as a lawyer has accelerated during my time offshore. Having a broad range of experience, across disciplines and jurisdictions, is really beneficial for junior lawyers but the ability to be a source of advice for the laws of more than one jurisdiction is also extremely helpful for clients when you reach more senior levels.
"Today's lawyers also need to be more rounded. High standards of technical ability are a given but other elements, such as business development, financial acumen and client relationship development are now absolute essentials too.”
Tech has played a big role in accelerating the rate of change.
“Law firms are typically late adopters of technology. 20 years ago most legal firms were not even using external emails. Now we embrace tech and use it to streamline processes and improve services. AI is a step away but we’re all open to new developments. We're also making strides into areas such as Fintech and crypto- currencies - our Cayman lawyers, in particular, have been involved in initial coin offerings and virtual currency fund establishment.
“Lawyers now need to be tech-savvy. We invested heavily in our infrastructure after the MBO of the fiduciary business - building a new system which we have continued to update and add to. We’re more agile, and use the most up-to-date systems which helps attract talent too.
“We now have the ability to work anywhere in the world as if we are sitting in our own offices in home jurisdictions. With more deals being completed electronically, and increasing expectation for round the clock service provision, having the right kit in place is key. We know that our systems are more advanced than many other firms, particularly offshore, and that has definitely become a factor in attracting and retaining talented people as well as enhancing service delivery to clients. We are also very fortunate to have the support of a really excellent IT team who are always looking for ways to improve things in the background to enable us to look good!"
Ogier's strategy has involved being more global, while staying local –taking legal services from different jurisdictions such as the BVI and Cayman to where clients have requirements in European markets. They are frequently able to provide one point of contact for advice on the laws of multiple jurisdictions due to the diversity they have in their teams. For example, while Simon heads the Jersey corporate team, he himself also practices BVI law and the same team also provide Cayman advice with the firm having relocated Piers Dryden, a Cayman funds and corporate partner, during 2017. Simon is clear that "the objective is to provide services where clients have a requirement for them ensuring accessibility at all times".
“The way we deliver services has changed, but so has the way we set ourselves up internally. We have a service line approach which enables us to join up across our jurisdictions. We also blend our disciplines to ensure that clients get a truly joined up Ogier platform with consistent service levels throughout. Everyone in the firm is encouraged to have, and supported in attaining, a holistic view of the firm. From our own perspective, that also allows us to be well placed to spot opportunities to cross sell our wider services to new and existing clients where they have needs.
“We have a genuinely more collegiate and collaborative approach now than we have ever had, which undoubtedly benefits clients.”
Family, rugby, food and wine are the things that Simon enjoys outside of work. A supporter of Harlequins and Jersey Reds, Simon played rugby on and off until his early 30s when he admits to having become too fragile and not nearly fit enough to continue! His main 'hobby' at the moment is studying for the Jersey Advocates exams – a fairly arduous task on top of a full time job and numerous other commitments even without the requirement to draft conveyances in French these days.
“While I admit to not being thrilled at the thought of yet more exams, the course is a really good way of understanding how a jurisdiction is put together. As a firm we are committed to ensuring our Jersey partners are admitted in Jersey which I think is important I chose to do the course over three years to allow me some balance with other commitments. I am consistently told by my fellow Advocate partners that 'it was much harder in their day' but it remains a challenge. With light at the end of the tunnel, I have to say I look forward to July 2018 when the studying will be behind me.”
Training and development at all stages in a career are essential for staying on top of the game in a fast-changing environment.
“As a firm we are really dedicated to developing talent. The changes that we have made to the way in which we work and structure ourselves have brought about real changes for all of our employees. Many organisations talk about change. We have managed to make some demonstrable differences which fee earners and our business services teams have benefitted from.
"We are by no means perfect and continue to try to adapt and develop our practices, but there is a general sense within the firm that Ogier has made material changes and is an exciting, progressive and dynamic place to work. That encourages talented people to stay and, I am pleased to say, that ethos has filtered out into our markets making us an attractive business that people want to join. When people are consistently approaching you, unsolicited, to become part of the Ogier team you know that there is a positive vibe and that we have got something right. Far from making us complacent, that drives us to develop further.
"Over the past five years there has been greater emphasis on attracting and developing home grown talent. We take people across all areas of the business, as paralegals, bursary students, etc. and train them so they can progress all the way with us – we are the only top tier firm in the Channel Islands that is able to offer training contracts and thereby supports people all the way through their legal journey. Several of my partners started as bursary students with Ogier many years ago and now we are seeing more and more paralegals progressing to training contracts and on to being qualified lawyers with us. That is a fantastic story to be able to tell and, again, helps us attract the very best people.”
Although Ogier had been developing its BVI team in Europe long before Hurricane Irma, the giant storm prompted two thirds of the company's BVI-based lawyers to relocate to Jersey or other jurisdictions.
“It was devastating for Tortola and very sad. Looking at pictures on the news of places you knew well from living there and not be able to recognise them was really shocking. So too were the stories of colleagues caught in the eye of the storm
"I am proud to say that Ogier was instrumental in setting up operations across service providers making sure people were safe or were being evacuated. We also helped with the relief effort and are committed to helping the BVI rebuild. In the last few weeks we have paid for a new roof on a school that we have been supporting, so that they can open their doors again. Our offices were not badly damaged and the head of our BVI office stayed in place throughout showing our real commitment to the island. It is a credit to the hard work of those in Tortola that the Registry and Court were back up and running very quickly so that business which is key to the island's economy could continue. The much bigger, and significantly more important, task is to rebuild the infrastructure to enable peoples' lives to return to normality after such devastation. That will take a lot longer.”
Ogier is also, says Simon, taking on the best ideas from other industries and applying them to law – he says that the old, conservative view of the legal profession is long gone.
“When we speak to onshore intermediaries, conversation has moved from legal work itself to how we deliver services. You can add value to a client not only with accurate, commercial and solutions based advice but also in the way in which you deliver a service. I'd love to say every piece of legal work requires lots of academic thought and is bespoke for each client. The reality is that elements of what we do are repetitive and are capable of being commoditized. Our aim is to enhance our processes to be able to deliver those types of tasks in a more effective manner.
“It's about refining your offering and differentiating yourself as a firm. In terms of how we deliver services and our own internal infrastructure, Ogier has moved ahead of competitor firms in recent years. We spend a lot of time sharing ideas and challenges with the leading onshore legal firms. We learn from them, and they learn from us but we are clear that we are exceptionally well positioned to deliver our services in a modern and focused way and to continually attract, retain and develop the very best people.”
This feature first appeared in Connect magazine.