“A historic chance arose to create something new in this sector that would have been difficult just a decade ago. We have seized that opportunity,” says the leader for Energy, Shipping & Offshore at SANDS, Lars Berge Andersen.
For several hundred years, shipping has been the way Norwegians have gained inspiration from the world. And where there is a shipowner, there is usually a lawyer. The relationship between them has been governed by earned trust, tradition and historic ties as thick as crude oil.
In the wake of the downturn in the oil industry, with a subsequent global decline in shipping and particularly offshore, SANDS built up a counter-cyclical effort in these industries. The fact that SANDS in a few years has climbed up on to the podium in an industry rich in tradition is primarily because they have managed to gather the greatest professional talents of their generation, but also thanks to the way the winds of international finance have driven Norwegian shipping and offshore.
“In light of the major tremors the industry has been through, it’s a matter of understanding the industry and offering what they need on their own terms,” says Lars Berge Andersen.
Industrial experience and international understanding. Andersen is sitting with partner Oddbjørn Slinning in the top floor of the new head office in Vika, right alongside Aker Brygge and in what was at one time the heart of the capital’s shipyard and shipping saga. They are half of a band of four with heavy legal and industrial experience who in a short time have built SANDS into a preferred advisor in shipping and offshore.
The legal profession began to reverse course on its outdated culture around the turn of the century, about the time Lars Berge Andersen started his career as a maritime lawyer at Wikborg Rein. Wikborg Rein has for a number of years been Norway’s leading practice for shipping and maritime law and a splendid school for newly educated lawyers. Andersen followed the firm and its clients out into the world, first to London and then to run the firm’s office in China for four years. In 2011, he switched to offshore and became Head of Legal at Aker Solutions and then general counsel at MHWirth, where he was also chief of staff and thus functioned in the operational inner chambers.
“Being on the industrial side of the table allows you to understand the industry and its needs. I saw that I could contribute new ideas about what the industry needed from the lawyer side and started yearning to use this knowledge to build something new,” explains Andersen.
It was not obvious where he could work as dynamically in the field as he wanted.
“It’s possible I was looking for a firm that perhaps did not yet exist.”
Have new ideas. Looking for a firm. Oddbjørn Slinning was on the lookout for the same thing. He had also risen in the ranks at Wikborg Rein. He was groomed for partnership at the legendary one-man office in Japan, where he worked for three years on everything from shipbuilding to transactions and shipwrecks, following in the footsteps of the fourteen predecessors there had been since the office opened in 1965. Two years after returning home, he became a partner.
Law firms have at times done things in the “old way”. Pushed to extremes, the large law firms have participated in client meetings with unnecessarily large teams and answered questions with exhaustive 20-page memoranda. These are elements that have motivated the Norwegian Bar Association to discuss whether the profession is seen as too pecuniary.
“I believe many people have felt that the legal profession has strategically raised earnings, and the widely published taxpayer lists have been used as a measure of whether the strategy is working. We faced a shipping and offshore industry in upheaval, and we asked ourselves whether that was what this industry needed most, or whether there was a better and more enjoyable way of doing it,” says Slinning.
The financial crisis was a tsunami. Trade in goods plunged. Shipping and offshore are industries with regular excess capacity because everyone buys ships and rigs in good times when it is also easy to get financing. Shipping was the first industry that stumbled when people no longer bought running shoes from China. Beginning in 2008 and 2009, a great deal of shipping money switched to offshore, which itself experienced an enormous correction when the price of oil began to fall dramatically in 2014. Andersen was then at Aker and watched what occurred:
“There was an upheaval that resulted in a major replacement of management, the entry of a new generation of managers and far slimmer organisations,” he recalls.
An operational succession itself provides opportunities for new alliances. In addition, new external players had come onto the field. When capital from the banks dried up, brokers stepped in offering other financing solutions such as bond issues and sale-and-leaseback. These were also people who didn’t necessarily feel bound to old client–lawyer relationships.
“Suddenly there was more room for new advisers and new mobility,” Andersen recalls.
In addition, many companies and shipowners worked in a different way on legal matters to previously, with their own employed lawyers internally at the company. It was no longer the old “volume work” with a lot of associate assistance they primarily sought from law firms. The new generation of shipowners, managers, brokers and shipyards primarily sought a good professional contact with an understanding of business whom they could ring at any time to discuss positions and problems with. The key is good, specific advice that fits the commercial reality of the situation.
“There was a feeling that old, established realities were about to fall away and that something new could be made to happen in the relationship between the client and the lawyer,” says Andersen.
Thus spoke Ravnaas. That was when Managing Partner Ernst Ravnaas at SANDS first rang Andersen. SANDS, with little background in shipping and offshore, was about to join the penthouse suite of Norwegian law firms by offering a modern view of how lawyers provide their services.
“Shouldn’t we be a real contender here?” asked Ernst. He said all the right things: That nothing is as it has been, and that what the client wants is seasoned, expert advice. That clients in industries undergoing major transitions need comprehensible advice from flexible teams in formats that make the most sense for the money. It was the boldest commitment I had ever heard,” says Andersen.
They understood that to be a contender they couldn’t build from the ground up. They didn’t have 20 years to put aside for it. They had to capture a position with top-notch professional knowledge right from the start.
“We knew that if we managed to recruit the ‘intermediate stage’ – those who right now are at their best but are not yet part of the old guard – then we could challenge from a favourable position,” says Andersen.
Andersen brought Marit Kirkhusmo, Englishman Guy Leonard and Oddbjørn Slinning on board. Together they represent massive national and international expertise from shipping and offshore, including unique industrial experience.
It was not a given that Slinning would leave the leading maritime law practice for a firm that traditionally had not been “Tier 1” in the field.
“But with this team, I understood that we had all the players we needed to truly contend,” declares Slinning. “To be part of a firm with so many other heavyweight law practices, and one of Norway’s foremost environments for commercial civil litigation … in the end it was easy to say yes to joining.”
Maritime lawyer 2.0. SANDS tries to distinguish itself through its way of working and how it communicates its expertise to an industry in transition.
“We differ from many others in the profession in that all the partners we recruit will preferably have industrial and international experience and thus know the informal structures and the global aspects, as well as having a good understanding of which problems may arise. This means that we can work the way the market wants us to work,” says Lars Berge Andersen.
“There is no room for peacocks in an industry in transition. We are most committed to being a reliable advisor.
Shipping and offshore have been in some dark places in the last decade. But both are on course for recovery and will continue to characterise the Norwegian economy in the foreseeable future.”
“Until some bright spark finds a new way to move goods between continents, we will have shipping in one form or another,” says Slinning. In addition, new sectors have opened up, such as offshore wind projects, offshore fish farming and seabed mining. The era we live in has been called the “century of the sea”.
As industries, shipping and offshore are still relatively small, with large assets and relatively few players. As a segment in the legal profession, it is even smaller, highly specialised and very international. The role of challenger is therefore deep within SANDS’ DNA.
“We are heavy on experience and committed to our pricing being attractive and providing advantages to clients in transition, along with great professional insight and availability. Our profitability will take care of itself, if we are good at what we do and solution-oriented and we have a fun, interesting time at work,” says Andersen.