Fredrick John de Saram, a young man of 19 in the early nineteenth century would not have dreamt of the 180-year-old legacy he started by creating the first law firm in the country. The historical 13th May 1841 is when his practice traces its roots marking this year the celebratory 180 years. What is unique [...]

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F J & G de Saram, a legacy of 180 years


Picture shows F.J. de Saram (Snr.) the founder; F.J. de Saram (Jnr.) and Leslie de Saram on top and the Bench and the Bar of Colombo in 1906.

Fredrick John de Saram, a young man of 19 in the early nineteenth century would not have dreamt of the 180-year-old legacy he started by creating the first law firm in the country.

The historical 13th May 1841 is when his practice traces its roots marking this year the celebratory 180 years. What is unique is that not only is it the oldest law firm in Sri Lanka, but also the oldest continuing partnership and one of the oldest establishments in the country, intimately interwoven with the socio-economic transformation and the growth and development which often matched the major economic, social, and political events that have shaped our nation. Thus, F J & G de Saram is embedded in the history of Sri Lanka.

Fredrick John received his education in a private school existing in the early 1800s in Colombo, paving the way for the next generations of the family, such as his grandsons who continued his legacy in the legal practice to receive their primary education from Royal College, Colombo.

In 1840, a year before the firm started, the British had promulgated the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1840 enabling the Colonial Government to sell vast extents of land in Sri Lanka to Europeans for coffee plantation enabling the first wave of foreign investments.

With the coffee industry boom, F. J. de Saram started his conveyancing practice in land transfers to the British mercantile community. De Saram became the solution to all legal woes of pioneering British road builders, councilmen, planters, and investors, including Major Thomson Skinner, C.M.G Commissioner of Public Works and George Wall of George Wall & Company, George Stuarts & Company, James Finlay and Company Ltd. As its size expanded, so did its experience in various practice areas. As the firm’s reputation for superior work grew, so did the caseload which led to the firm hiring several associates.

F.J. de Saram also catered to the legal aspects of the tea and rubber industry. During this era, the law was such that villages, viharagam, and devagam which belonged to temples, and nindagam which belonged to leading families were converted into British plantations. F. J. de Saram was retained by the British who made these conversions to act on their behalf for conveyancing and to represent them in court when villagers instituted actions seeking to assert their inheritance rights.

Thus F. J. de Saram had won the confidence of the British community with remarkable thoroughness of their work and commitment of the lawyers. They were continuously retained by the companies which owned, leased, and managed these estates. They continue to provide legal services to most of the plantation companies in the country, to date.

Capital markets

The registration of companies initiated with the enactment of the Joint Stock Companies Ordinance No. 04 of 1861 saw 49 companies started in the first 20 years with most registered by F. J. de Saram.

F. J. de Saram was blessed with seven sons and three of them – F. J. de Saram Jr., Richard, and George were also employed at the company. Later, after the senior F. J. de Saram passed away, George was made a partner, renaming the firm as F J & G de Saram. F.J. de Saram (Snr.) had attested 16,105 deeds and his son, F.J. de Saram (Jnr.) is said to have attested 10,960 deeds. The number of deeds attested by each Notary Public would run into millions.

They were involved in drawing up hundreds of Memorandums and Articles of Associations for the companies that were incorporated at the time and F J & G de Saram partners were often the initial subscribers to these emerging companies. Colombo Share Brokers’ Association was formed in 1896 and later amalgamated with the Colombo Brokers’ Association in 1904 whose brokers were European firms that had de Saram’s as the lawyers. Their clients, Forbes, Somerville and Walker were the Tea Brokers at Colombo Tea Auctions, whilst their clients – Liptons, Brooke Bonds were among principal buyers of tea.

They were the lawyers for important personalities and dominant businesses during the British Empire in Sri Lanka, but their known credibility was such that with the advent of independence in 1948, their legal services were sought by personalities such as D.S. Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, D.R. Wijewardene, and Sir Arthur Ranasinha – the frontliners of the independence movement.

The Sex Disqualification Removal (Legal Profession) Ordinance No. 25 of 1933 saw women begin legal careers giving them a licence to become and to practice as Advocates, Proctors, and Notaries. F J & G de Saram started recruiting female lawyers in the late 1950s.

The last de Saram to work in the company was Neil de Saram who left the country in 1958 to take up the post of Secretary of the Ceylon Association in London. From thereon, the formation of the partnership was meritocracy-based.F J & G de Saram became a full meritocracy in 2003 when we moved away from the lock step system of compensation.

Red to a liberalised economy

When the British decided to grant the responsibility of all matters of the internal civil administration to the Ceylonese, they requested the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) among others for recommendations to be included in the draft constitution of a free Sri Lanka.

The CCC consulted F J & G de Saram in drafting the recommendations which highlighted the need to avoid discrimination among races, the need for the impartial administration of justice, and of the departments of the Government. The CCC made representations, through F J & G de Saram, on the draft constitution that was adopted by a Constituent Assembly in 1972 and by which the country became the first Republican Constitution of Sri Lanka.

With the growth of the state sector, they became the lawyers to a host of Government Corporations such as the Ceylon Steel Corporation, State Distilleries Corporation, Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation etc.

When the Attorney General’s Department was established, the Government Corporations stopped retaining private lawyers as they were required to consult the AG for all legal matters. The enactment of the Land Reform Law No. 01 of 1972 and subsequent Land Reform (Amendment) Law No. 39 of 1975 saw F J & G de Saram which was largely servicing the plantation industry, gradually shifting to service corporates.

In 1977 with the liberalisation of the economy, new clients brought new fields of work in corporate law, investment, and project-related work.

Many pioneer milestones of the developing economy – setting up the Colombo Stock Exchange, advising starting the first cellular phone company, drafting and assisting in the promulgation of new regulations to enable cellular technology to Sri Lanka, advising on the first initial public offering etc was done by F J & G de Saram.

Today, F J & G de Saram is headed by a partnership of 14 lawyers, out of whom 11 are female. Ayomi Aluwihare is the Precedent Partner which has five main divisions viz. Corporate Law, Litigation and Arbitration, Banking and Real Property, Intellectual Property and Corporate Services. F J & G de Saram is continuously ranked as a top-tier firm across all practice areas by many leading international legal directories such as the Chambers Global, IFLR 1000, and Asia Pacific Legal 500. When women began to join the legal profession in significant numbers, the need to encourage such talent was conceded, and starting a well-equipped daycare facility 21 years ago to assist female lawyers to continue their career and fulfill their roles as mothers while being productive was pioneered by F J & G de Saram.

F J & G de Saram has experienced and survived foreign invasions, world wars, civil wars, inflations, and 180 years of socioeconomic change along with the country and its people. F J & G de Saram’s unique longevity and its continuous contribution to the development of the economy of Sri Lanka is a testament to their resilience as a law firm.

Today, they are a full-service commercial law firm providing legal services to its clientele.

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