Guide to living and working in the British Virgin Islands

Guide to living and working in the British Virgin Islands

Take a global financial centre and place it in the quintessential Caribbean idyll. Add a lucrative low-tax salary and the British Virgin Islands might just offer the perfect blend of a high level legal career and a lifestyle that dreams are made of. But is this most remote of offshore centres right for you?

The Islands

  • Eastern Caribbean
  • 60 miles from Puerto Rico
  • Idyllic archipelago of some 50 islands
  • Abundance of natural beauty
  • World class haven for water sports and sailing
  • Exclusive tourist destination

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) is an idyllic archipelago situated in the Eastern Caribbean around 60 miles from the coast of Puerto Rico and close to the larger US Virgin Islands. The capital, Road Town, is located on Tortola and is the administrative centre of this British Overseas Territory. It is also the hub of the BVI financial services and offshore legal sectors, and home to the majority of ex-pats (at least those who still have to earn a living!) Many of the other islands are tiny, ranging from private havens for the rich and famous and exclusive resorts, to spectacular national parks.

Despite its relatively small area, a total permanent population of around 30,000 people means few places in the BVI are crowded. Tortola, the main entry point for visitors arriving by air, and an exclusive tourist destination in its own right, is about as busy as BVI gets, but this is not city living! Even in comparison to other offshore centres such as Cayman and Bermuda, Tortola remains relatively small and unaffected. Of course this is part of its charm for most people and there can be few other places on earth where it is possible to combine top quality international legal work with such an environment.

As with the rest of the Caribbean, the climate and lifestyle are a major attraction. The temperature ranges between the low twenties and the high thirties and the islands benefit from year round sunshine. For such a small place there is plenty of history and an abundance of natural beauty in the mountainous interior, but it is the unspoilt coastlines, pristine beaches and warm ocean that tend to keep people here. It is a world class haven for water sports, diving and sailing.

The Economy

  • Tourism and Financial Services
  • Global leader in offshore company formation
  • Key financial centre for developing markets

The economy of the BVI is firmly based on the twin pillars of tourism and financial services, between them accounting for almost the entire national income. Financial services is slightly the larger of the two and has developed rapidly over the last thirty years, to the point that BVI vehicles are now the preferred option for a large chunk of the offshore investment market. Recent estimates suggest that around half a million, or 40%, of the world’s offshore companies are registered in Tortola, with incorporation fees accounting for around 50% of government revenue.

“Around 40% of the world’s offshore companies are registered in Tortola.”

Barring a short period of stagnation, post-financial crisis, the financial sector has remained robust, aided in large part by its position as the jurisdiction of choice for many of the world’s key developing markets. Investment flowing out of South East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the Middle East and Russia/CEE will as often as not be structured through BVI vehicles – good news in a global economy which is no longer dictated solely by Europe and the United States.

Turtle
Swimming in water with rocks

The Legal Sector

  • Offshore legal sector
  • Interesting cross-border work
  • Smaller teams

Dominated for many years by one clear market leader, Harney Westwood and Riegels, the last decade has seen an opening up of the BVI legal sector as the offshore giants have moved in. With every ambitious firm now boasting an office in Tortola, the competition is fiercer than ever and yet teams continue to grow and new firms continue to enter the market.

Harneys remains the largest firm on the island and is ranked in the top tier for most practice areas. With around 50 lawyers in Tortola, it fields double the headcount of its nearest rivals. Global heavyweights such as Appleby, Carey Olsen, Conyers Dill & Pearman, Maples and Calder, Mourant Ozannes, Ogier and Walkers all field relatively small but highly respected teams whilst Collas Crill entered the market in 2017 and look set to grow significantly.

One additional point of note is that most of the firms listed above will also offer BVI expertise out of their other offices (particularly in Hong Kong and London) so whilst the teams on the ground can be relatively small, the overall BVI team fielded by any of these firms will often be substantially larger.

 

  • Corporate
  • Banking & Finance
  • FundsCommercial Litigation
  • Insolvency
  • Trusts

BVI has undoubtedly been the busiest of the offshore jurisdictions over recent years, with established firms looking to strengthen existing teams. As with many international moves, the most common role is in the two to six years’ pqe category, but the maturing of the market has brought with it a notable increase in demand for more senior candidates, particularly where they have a sought after skill set (or prior offshore experience).

Given the nature of the firms’ practices, the vacancies tend to come up in mainstream Corporate, Banking & Finance, Commercial Litigation (particularly Barristers), Insolvency and Trusts. The funds market in BVI is growing, leading to an increased demand for specialist expertise in this field but whilst in Cayman many roles require funds expertise alone, in BVI it is far more likely to be a component part of a broader transactional practice.

Regardless of the role, a background in a respected City or equivalent law firm/chambers may be essential. It depends to an extent on the firm and the role, since some will only look at Magic/ Silver Circle or top US firms, whilst others are happy to consider applicants from more mid-level City practices as well as top tier regional firms (particularly in less City centric areas such as Trusts).

“The last decade has seen an opening up of the BVI legal sector as the offshore giants have moved in.”
Skyline of Singapore Marina Bay in Singapore

life as a Lawyer in the BVI

  • International client base
  • BVI Law
  • Diverse and fast-paced workload
  • Decent work-life balance
  • Brilliant lifestyle
  • Excellent salaries, 8% tax

Practising in BVI means gaining admission to the local Bar, the BVI section of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, and at the risk of stating the obvious, this means that you will be practising BVI rather than English law. In reality, any experienced English lawyers will adapt easily enough to a system that closely mirrors our own, but nonetheless it is wise to expect some period of integration whilst getting up to speed with the technical and cultural differences of BVI law.

On a day to day basis you will see some immediate changes from professional life in the UK. BVI lawyers will typically advise on specific, often highly technical points of law which are crucial to a wider deal/case and you will notice that the volume of matters you advise on increases dramatically whilst the elements of the matter that concern you shrink.

On the plus side, you can expect to spend less time on heavyweight documentation than would be the case onshore, but on the other hand you will need to be confident juggling a number of demands,

 

and the ability to think on your feet will be priceless. You will also need to be comfortable sometimes taking a slightly more peripheral role on the deal/ case rather than being at the core of it, although for most this is offset by the increase in their personal level of responsibility and client contact.

Anyone looking at a move to BVI as a step down in pace should be cautious as these firms are fighting for business in a highly competitive market and with clients based all over the world, so this is not a 9-5 job. Having said that, work-life balance in BVI is relatively good and will be an improvement for anyone used to the hours at a top City firm. There are some notable advantages; little or no commute to the office, far more personal control over when and how you handle your workload, and perhaps most crucially, there is no culture of working late to be seen to be working late.

Salaries vary from firm to firm but the leading outfits pay well and even those moving from a good City firm will almost certainly gain financially when you consider that that taxation is limited to a maximum of 8%. Exchange rates impact on the sterling value of course, but current rates would see most lawyers at three years’ PQE earning well in excess of £100k per annum. Factor in to this a cost of living that is far more favourable than Cayman or Bermuda and it adds up to a sensible move economically.

“There are first-rate professional opportunities on the island”
Sentosa, Singapore
Dock at Bermuda beach

Qualifications

Admission in the BVI requires that lawyers are qualified in England & Wales. It is worth noting that there are ongoing discussions at government level relating to a new set of regulations aimed at tightening up the rules, in part a response to ex-pat lawyers gaining admission in BVI and then leaving immediately to practice BVI law from somewhere else in the world. The proposals, if implemented, may increase the amount of post-qualification experience required in order for an English lawyer to practice in the jurisdiction but all indications are that this will not apply to existing lawyers who are already in the market. Watch this space for developments. Gaining admission in BVI, subject to the criteria above, is straightforward with no need to complete additional studies or exams.

Work-Permits

Work permits are required for all non-BVI citizens and are typically allocated on a two-year basis. In order to secure a work permit you will need to be eligible for admission in BVI (see criteria above) and the firm will need to have satisfied the authorities that they have been unable to source an appropriate candidate locally. For most, the permit process is straightforward, but it can take a few weeks and you should remember before resigning that it is possible – if extremely unlikely – that it could be declined. Spouses are entitled to live on the island and can apply for a work permit. Unmarried partners accompanying a lawyer would need to apply independently.

 

Education

Most ex-pats will send their children to one of the private schools. Common opinion is that primary level in the private sector is very good, whilst at secondary level, as anywhere it is down to individual families’ preferences. Take a look at Cedars School as an example of one which is popular with ex pats - http://www.cedarschoolbvi.com/

The Career Path

It is perfectly possible to build a long-term career in the BVI and work towards Partnership – every bit as attainable but challenging as it is onshore – and many people do just that. But for some, life in the Caribbean, for all of its attractions, has a finite time frame, raising the question of what next.

All of the major BVI firms are members of the ‘offshore magic circle’ with multiple offices in offshore and major onshore locations. An internal move to Cayman, the Channel Islands, Hong Kong, Singapore or even London is perfectly realistic and can provide continuity with your firm whilst allowing you to move closer to ‘home’ or experience life in another jurisdiction. As for moving back to an onshore firm, this is relatively rare. Not because it is impossible but rather because for most it would be unappealing after the small teams, client contact and autonomy experienced offshore. Still, for those who do, options exist particularly given that you will have gained experience in highly sought after areas of

Accommodation

There are no restrictions on buying property in BVI but most people will understandably choose to rent at least in the first couple of years. There is a plentiful supply of high-quality accommodation across a wide price range but as a rough guideline you should expect to pay around US$2000 per month for a very nice two bed apartment and perhaps US$3000+ for a house with pool. Firms are helpful in putting you in touch with real estate agents once an offer is accepted and it is common for accommodation to be provided on arrival, allowing you time to find your feet.

Jason H Landscape

Origin Legal is a specialist legal recruitment company launched in January 2005 by a management team that first came together in 1996. Origin Legal is recognised as one of the UK’s leading providers of legal jobs at all levels for lawyers, legal executives, solicitors and paralegals. The company’s primary goal is to deliver the highest quality of service and through successful legal recruiting develop and maintain long term client relationships.

Contact

If you would like to find out more about the market, discuss potential opportunities or just ask a few questions about living and working in the Cayman Islands, please get in touch.  If you would like to send us a CV you can rest assured that it will be treated confidentially and never released without your advance approval. If you prefer to chat first, you can contact us any time on the details below:

Jason Horobin ddi. +44 (0)1206 233 514 [email protected]

Charlotte Hooper ddi. +44 (0)1206 233 515 [email protected]

Links

To find out more take a look at some of the following links:

  • Tourism www.bvitourism.com
  • Financial Services Commission http://www.bvifsc.vg/
  • Daily Telegraph Article Telegraph - BVI
  • Site aimed at new arrivals http://bvinewbie.com/
  • Legal 500 http://www.legal500.com/c/british-virgin-islands
  • Chambers http://www.chambersandpartners.com/Global/ Search/Location/42
  • Harneys www.harneys.com
  • Maples and Calder www.maplesandcalder.com
  • Walkers www.walkersglobal.com
  • Mourant Ozannes www.mourantozannes.com
  • Appleby www.applebyglobal.com
  • Ogier www.ogier.com
  • Conyers Dill www.conyersdill.com
  • Carey Olsen www.careyolsen.com
  • Collas Crill www.collascrill.com