F.J. & G. de Saram, the country’s first law firm, celebrates 180 years of continued excellence

Thursday, 13 May 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

From left: Founder F.J. de Saram (Snr.), F.J. de Saram (Jnr.) and George de Saram


The British disposed of land in somewhat of a frenzy in the early part of the 19th century, according to Sir Thomas Villiers who authored a very authoritative and descriptive book called ‘Corporate Lore’ (1940). 

Enormous tracts of land were conveyed on Crown grants and the boundaries between lands were marked by the planters themselves with descriptions of the lands being sketchy and vague. There were also a large number of re-sales taking place based on these Crown Grants. In order to achieve some degree of compliance with obligations entered into, notarial instruments such as ‘Crop Bonds’ which were in relation to future crops being consigned to financial houses for sale in London, were needed. 

When plantations were sold in the absence of prospectuses, companies depended on the integrity of three legal giants of the time who all worked from one office at Queens Street, Fort. They were F.C. Loos, V.A. Julius (an Englishman who founded Julius & Creasy) and F.J. de Saram. The trust placed in these three conveyancers has to be understood in the context of transactions taking place with thousands of miles separating the transacting parties and the notaries, and communication being frustratingly slow and unreliable.

The description given by Thomas Villiers indicates that the three lawyers even shared one work table and there must have been a brotherhood and cooperation which prevailed – unthinkable of today.

The tradition of the firm to be socially relevant and community conscious has resulted in a thirst for diversity and putting people first. The meritocracy practiced in relation to professional staff is a motivating factor which encourages service excellence. A working environment which values cross functional engagement of expertise has helped develop an integrated model for self-development, which culture is mainstreamed into a collective responsibility to its vast and disparate clientele. This helps the firm to maintain an exemplary service.

I believe they are trailblazers in being the first professional organisation to introduce a crèche for children of employees.

The firm published its history to mark the 160th anniversary of the firm authored by U.L. Kadurugamuwa, who was then the senior partner of the firm, and I was privileged to share some thoughts with him when he was compiling the book. Kaduru I had known at the Law College where he was an outstanding student. His vision for the firm was based on a zeal, passion and tradition, which I think was also responsible for the firm being able to move to its present location which has so much historical value to the firm, the very street bearing the name ‘De Saram Place’ honouring F.J. de Saram Jnr. who was a Municipal Councillor (incidentally, his father was also a Municipal Councillor, during an era when being a ‘City Father’ meant much!).

The years were not uniformly kind to the firm and when in the 1970s there was a wave of nationalisation and a promotion of public-owned business, the firm lost many of its clients. The firm had to even reduce its office space to economise. A positive offshoot of the downsizing was that Kaduru realised the need to document the history of the firm before many historical documents could end up being destroyed for lack of space. 

F.J. de Saram (Senior) according to the history of the firm commenced his career as a notary under Andriess Nicholas Martensz on 13 May 1841, 180 years ago. It would appear that F.J. de Saram was enrolled as a Proctor a few years later and he married the daughter of his guru, Martensz, thereby establishing a link between the families which spanned a period of 120 years according to historical records. F.J. de Saram had seven sons and one of them was named after him. Two other sons Richard Francis and George also worked for the firm. 

After the death of his father F.J. Junior, appointed his brother Richard to be a partner, but the latter left to commence his own legal firm which is now DL & F de Saram. This resulted in the other brother George being appointed a partner and the firm of FJ &G de Saram was born. 

When George Steuart & Co. celebrated its centenary the proposer of a toast of the mercantile community, said among many complimentary remarks about the firm: “When in doubt or difficulty of any kind, the cry has been consult de Sarams and never have they failed us”.  

The firm is the oldest in Sri Lanka. Why is the firm still vibrant and active after 18 decades? I cannot do better than quote what Deshamanya H.L. de Silva, PC, said in his Foreword to the book mentioned. He says: “The values and ideals which the original founders of the firm fashioned for themselves constituted a living tradition that was internalised and transmitted to succeeding generations of lawyers of the firm as a precious gift to the community which they continue to serve.”

I have mentioned just the earliest partners and the list of exceptional lawyers who came thereafter, I cannot do justice to, in a short article of this nature. I may say that the flag has been carried aloft with great aplomb, reliability and acclaim by the partners who came later.

The firm cannot be classed merely as ‘conveyancers or instructing attorneys’ as their skills and knowledge set the foundation for agreements which are rock solid, full of clarity and always backed by the 180 years of excellence inherited from the wordsmiths who nurtured the firm. 

The current strength of the firm is 57 professionals and almost as many support staff. They are engaged in services which range from the traditional services of court representation and conveyancing to advisory services spanning the full spectrum of commercial concerns. The complexities brought about by the ICT age have been adequately responded to by the firm which acquires skills which keep the services at an optimum level of efficiency. This traditional legal firm can boast of the widest knowledge of the law and through its vast clientele, it sets the foundation for the commerce of the country and standards of corporate governance. 

The firm has never compromised on the integrity and responsibility which the forefathers of the present generation of partners and professionals have left as a legacy. A global rating agency of the world’s leading lawyers made this comment as its assessment of the firm of FJ & G de Saram: “The firm is renowned for its high integrity, innovative work, dynamism and the tenacious follow up of a client’s cause.” The excellence continues undiminished. Ad multos annos!