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Northern Ireland is rebuilding its economy after the strain of many years of war, and law firms which are now cementing relationships with their southern counterparts are reaping the benefits of referral work. Fenella Quinn reports
Northern Ireland's legal scene is certainly not as large as that enjoyed by its southern neighbours, with even the largest firm having only 12 partners, but according to most that is set to change.
Despite still being officially part of the UK, Northern Ireland is enjoying the effects of an economic boom that reaches across the whole of Ireland.
The first question on everyone's mind is, of course, the peace process which finally seems to be hiccuping towards some kind of conclusion. William Fry partner Brendan Cahill says: "It's a thorny problem and there are hundreds of years of history that have to be overcome, but I think people have crossed the mental Rubicon in the north and decided they want a more peaceful route."
According to some, the end of the troubles may prove a shock to business. Neil Faris, managing partner of Belfast-based Cleaver Fulton Rankin, says: "The troubles have insulated us in Northern Ireland to some extent because of the extra money that the UK government has put in."
Predicting that these subsidies will soon be phased out, he adds: "Ultimately that will be a good thing because we won't be cosseted any more. We'll be in the marketplace and there are already signs of increased entrepreneurialism and commercial activity."
Apart from the recent arrival of Scottish firm McGrigor Donald, Belfast has not as yet been prey to foreign firms muscling in, but there is a lot of cross-fertilisation between northern and southern firms.
John-George Willis, partner at Tughan & Co, which has formed an association with William Fry in the south, says that putting the relationship on a formal footing is intended to cement a long-standing friendship. It will create "significant work referral" between the firms and will "differ significantly" from other cross-border relationships.
"We do not know if it will eventually lead to a merger between the two firms but we are determined in the short to medium term to make the association work," he says.
William Fry's Cahill says the two firms already have several common clients such as Boots and Tesco. He says: "There will be a lot of interaction between the two economies when the peace process dividend comes home."
While Arthur Cox is the only southern firm to have an office in Northern Ireland, several firms have arrangements, including Elliott Duffy Garrett with A&L Goodbody in Dublin and L'Estrange & Brett with McCann Fitzgerald. Declan Moylan, managing partner of Dublin firm Mason Hayes & Curran which, with a turnover of £10m (punts) last year, came sixth in The Lawyer's league tables, also says that his firm is "in discussion with a firm in Belfast at the moment and will be making a significant announcement soon".
CLEAVER FULTON RANKIN
Managing partner: Neil Faris
No of partners: 10
No of fee earners: 36 (including 9 paralegals)
Main areas of practice: General commercial, private client other than matrimonial
Cleaver Fulton reports an increase in IP work and e-commerce. It is doing a growing amount of property development work. The Post Office and BT are clients.
It handled the Prudential's new Northern Ireland HQ in Belfast. The firm's ethos is to provide world-class law. Faris says it has "eschewed alliances, because we think that would compromise our ability to provide this world-class service".
But the firm is a keen network member, currently signed up to LawNet, the International Lawyers' Network, Global Law and Tag Law.
TUGHAN & CO
Senior partner: Michael Gibson
No of partners: 12
No of fee earners: 26
Main areas of practice: Corporate, property and defence litigation
Last November Tughan & Co formed an association with Dublin firm William Fry, developing a common corporate identity with them. And last year, the firm merged with Ronald Rosser & Co, a boutique insurance defence firm with its principal office in Lurgan, County Armagh.
All areas have seen a significant upturn in the past year. The firm has acted for Belfast Harbour Commissioners and taken over from Travers Smith Braithwaite advising Lamont Holdings. The firm has recently acted for Kainos software, Lagan Technologies and Amacis.
ELLIOTT DUFFY GARRETT
Managing partner: Harry Coll
No of partners: 12
No of fee earners: 22
Main areas of practice: Corporate, commercial litigation, employment and discrimination law, licensing
In August last year, the firm moved to new premises, still in Belfast's city centre. As of 1 July it will have one new partner in addition to two new fee earners appointed earlier in the year.
The firm is ramping up its marketing efforts with the appointment of a marketing executive, and by investing in new technology. An upgraded website is under development. One partner is very active in the e-commerce arena and for the past five years the firm has had a relationship with A&L Goodbody in Dublin through the European Economic Interest Group.
Babington & Croasdaile
McKinty & Wright
Carson & McDowell
Senior partner: Alan Hewitt
No of partners: 10
No of fee earners: 20
Main areas of practice: Corp/commercial, commercial property, litigation, conveyancing and private client
L'Estrange &Brett has seen a steady increase in PFI work in the past year. Last year it was instructed by Consul Services, contractors for Belfast's highly acclaimed new law courts complex. It has also just acted for Northwin, contractors in building accommodation for the North West Institute of Technology.
The firm's standing in the PFI arena is confirmed by its membership of the panel which, along with McCann Fitzgerald and PricewaterhouseCoopers, drew up the policy framework for PPPs in the Republic of Ireland on behalf of the government.