Standing on the scaffold with the Earl of Derwentwater as he awaited execution in 1716, Northumberland man Jasper Gibson could only have dreamed his law firm would still be going strong nearly 300 years later.
Founded in Hexham in 1715, the Gibson & Co Solicitors is undisputed in its title of longest established family-run law firm in the country. Now on the cusp of its 300th year the enduring business has spread its wings beyond Jasper’s homeland, acting for clients across the world.
“Our generation finds the longevity really peculiar. It’s only a product of the last ten years or so - given the industry’s changes and the rate of flux,” said partner, Toby Gibson, the 12th generation of Gibson to work at the North East firm.
Batting off numerous approaches from rivals, including three significant moves in the last few years, Gibson & Co has adapted to a changing legal industry landscape.
Toby added: “There’s several factors at play: the pressure on firms funded by the public purse; the change in management structures of law firms; and the way regulation has changed traditional high street work.”
Gibson & Co opened a Newcastle office in 1937, the same year Toby’s father, and senior partner in the firm, Tony Gibson, was born. A uniquely placed Bellingham consulting office - manned by partner Michael Macgregor - still offers the Northumberland farming community legal expertise on a weekly basis.
It is the buying and selling of farms that comprises most of the firm’s agricultural work, which has always been a staple given its Hexham roots.
Jane Gibson said: “Harry Chrisp leads much of our agricultural work, and he always laughs that he needs to keep his wellies in the boot of the car these days. And it’s true - at least a couple of times a week he will be on the farms - getting to grips with issues.”
“It’s been a long held tradition now that whenever we’re acting in the sale or purchase of a farm, we will walk the boundaries,” added 77 year-old Tony.
Meanwhile, the Newcastle office supports a broader range of activities, including divorce and matrimonial services; tax planning; conveyancing and probate - among others. It is also from Gibson & Co’s long established West Road office that husband and wife, Toby and Jane, undertake international litigation work - specifically within the banking and finance industry.
“We’ve been pretty busy in that department since the credit crunch,” said 45 year-old Toby.
The area is an “add on” to the firm’s traditional offering, a specialism that both Toby and Jane have imported from their early careers working for large city law firms, and in Hong Kong. In contrast to Gibson & Co’s traditional regional customer base, most of this work is for major international clients - including the likes of the Sri Lankan and Egyptian governments. Referrals and word-of-mouth drives much of this portion of the business. Sometimes instructions can come from people the firm has acted against - a feature the Gibsons recognise as perhaps one of the best accolades.
Jane explained: “Many clients want an English lawyer - and it doesn’t much matter to them whereabouts in England that lawyer comes from. They want to know that we can deliver for them.
“We make a virtue of the fact we’re based in Newcastle. Me and Toby are both London trained and experienced, meaning we can offer clients that level, but without the overheads.”
Toby added: “It’s considered a big deal for a London client to instruct a Newcastle firm, but it’s less of a big deal for overseas clients to instruct a Newcastle firm.”
Realistically much of the work is conducted outside of the North East. Recently it has taken Toby to Moscow and Jane has acted for the European Commission - what could be a first for any English law firm.
These type of clients are not earned through the “cold sell”, and the Gibsons’ city network helps maintain a healthy pipeline of work. Growth in corporate litigation activity also prompted approaches for the firm to take on transactional and deals work. They responded with a corporate division, led by partner Peter Clark.
The division completes the Gibson & Co office jigsaw. The secret to 300 years in business then? It is largely luck, reckons Toby.
“It can be a huge source of tension in family business, when the next generation is moving up to become involved. When I left law school I went off to pursue my career in London. Dad asked me numerous times whether I would come back and I’d always say no,” he said.
“It wasn’t until me and Jane started a family that it came onto the agenda. And it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”