Going back to their roots

One area in which the peace process may have a direct part to play is the return of the natives, those solicitors who left the North in search of a better life elsewhere. Carson & McDowell partner Brian Turtle says his firm has had “more and more enquiries of a genuine nature”, from solicitors anxious to return to enjoy the higher quality of life which Northern Ireland can offer.

Many of these solicitors are working in City of London firms, and although they are earning considerably more money, they are willing to exchange this for fewer working hours in the North.

Turtle says lawyers working in the province are “members of world class golf clubs and are able to play on Saturday, whereas their counterparts in London can't even get into a golf club”.

And although there is no major recruitment programme under way by Northern Ireland firms because of the “tight market”, nonetheless those lawyers with suitable commercial and banking experience will be courted.

Despite mixed feelings on what part peace will play in creating economic prosperity, the general feeling among law firms is that they “wouldn't change it for the world” and there is a cautious optimism about things to come.

Few firms have opened in Southern Ireland, and it would be an exaggeration to say that Belfast firms are looking forward to increased links with Dublin firms. However, minds are certainly more receptive to the idea.

Although most of the traffic for business has been between Belfast and London or Dublin and London, it is acknowledged that Northern Ireland firms must find new markets, and if this means forging stronger links than straightforward agency arrangements or informal connections south of the border, then this will be done.

At present, firms such as C&H Jefferson and White McMillan Wheeler have informal links with Mason Hayes & Curran in Dublin.

And recent changes resulting from EU legislation about reciprocal admission in the South may result in greater cross-fertilisation of practitioners.

Some firms are benefiting already from the interest of Southern Irish businesses in extending their remits to Northern Ireland. “There is a noticeable increase in interest of Southern companies looking North, not necessarily at acquisitions but at the various markets,” says Tughan & Co partner John George Willis.

In particular, a number of companies with agricultural work have made acquisitions in the North including the Kerry Group's takeover of Portadown meat producers Dennys.

Other companies heading North include the Smurfit Group which took over Lurgan-based Ulster Paper Products.

Part of this move outward has seen a number of firms join international associations as an alternative to establishing foreign offices.

Cleaver Fulton & Rankin is a member of Lawnet. Partner Neil Faris says the firm is currently in the process of implementing the group's quality standards and is finding membership helpful because of back-up and research facilities.

Tughan & Co is a member of Mackrell International, a group comprising 50 law firms in 35 countries which meets twice a year. Willis says the firm has received several instructions through the group but the greatest benefit of membership is to be able to send work out to known firms.

And he adds that the growth of commercial work will mean law firms in Northern Ireland having to expand rapidly, “but we know we have to remain very competitive,” he says.