Regional focus: Belfast
17 May 2013
23 June 2014
28 October 2013
21 March 2014
1 September 2014
27 August 2014
The pace of change in the Northern Ireland legal sector was, until a couple of years ago, sluggish at best. Now, having weathered the financial storm, Belfast now resides as the beating heart of developments in the law and there is still more to come.
Ten years ago, it would not have been out of the ordinary for budding lawyers to overlook Northern Ireland as a potential venue in which to forge a legal career. For English students, the presence of the Irish Sea was enough to put it out of mind, while Northern Ireland born students and young people often left the country in search of bigger cities and better opportunities.
However, over recent years, a shift has taken place which has left the region punching well above its weight in the legal world and which has left graduates thinking twice before leaving Belfast’s shores.
There is no doubt that the growth in the Northern Ireland legal sector can be put down to the number of law graduates who now perceive Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, as a land of opportunity. Queen’s University and the University of Ulster are the two main providers of legal education in the region, both of which are producing law graduates with a broad knowledge of the regional complexities associated with this small jurisdiction. Queen’s is also the only Northern Ireland member of the prestigious Russell Group, placing it well within the top 20 universities in the UK.
Postgraduate professional training for would-be solicitors and barristers is also provided by bodies affiliated with these universities. The Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPLS) at Queen’s and the Graduate School of Professional Legal Education (GSPLE) provide practical training over a two-year period. Unlike legal practice course (LPC) providers, Northern Ireland providers do not take on students who have not first been selected as a trainee by a solicitors firm, otherwise known as a “master”.
Although this provides the benefit of ongoing in-office training alongside more technical studies, it proves for fierce competition. In order for the most suitable students to be selected, candidates must sit an entrance exam in the December prior to being admitted onto the course. It is not unheard of that people will sit the exam twice or even three times in order to begin their formal legal training. It is no wonder then that the Northern Ireland legal marketplace is saturated with a pool of talent who wish to make Belfast their home.
Migration from the Mainland
Another major change in recent years has been the growing presence of international heavyweight firms in Belfast. Allen & Overy, Herbert Smith Freehills and TLT Solicitors are three of the most notable additions to the legal sector over the past few years. These law firms have not only begun to attract the best legal minds but have also stirred up competition from Northern Ireland-based firms in order that they do not steal the competitive edge.
With the takeover of McGrigors by Pinsent Masons LLP and the recent rebranding of Carson McDowell LLP, Belfast firms have raised the bar in terms of legal services and client base. Developments in the law coupled with the attraction of cross-border deals with the Republic of Ireland, have only served to improve Northern Ireland’s burgeoning legal industry.
A Unique Jurisdiction
Alongside the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland was not able to avoid the harsh effects of the economic downturn and has seen the winding up of several smaller and some medium-sized law firms since the beginning of the credit crunch. In particular, the reliance on private clients dealing with land transactions and an inflated property market have left many solicitors and their clients in disbelief as streams of steady work turn into a slow trickle.
However, larger firms have tapped into growth areas, some of which are the result of the fallout from the recession and some of which are the result of inward investment in the region and growth in new sectors. None is more cutting-edge than renewable energies and a handful of firms have been instrumental in providing for offshore wind farms which are sprouting up across the island.
Corporate firms and departments will also begin to see a willingness on the part of local business clients to push the boundaries further into Europe and the United States in order to compete globally. Indeed, such clients may also be seen as much more attractive business partners and potential subsidiaries by international groups with recent surges in investment, as exemplified by the acquisition of Moy Park Limited by the Brazil-based Marfrig Group.
Indeed, other more recent legal developments have left Belfast in a somewhat unique position. The Royal Charter on press regulation resulting from the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry will not apply to this region nor, in fact, will the Defamation Act which has recently been passed by Parliament. What this means for Northern Ireland’s media and privacy lawyers is unclear given the Northern Ireland Assembly may well decide to legislate on these matters imminently. In the event that they remain silent, Belfast may become a much more attractive location for defamation actions as England & Wales tighten up controls on such cases.
Of course, Northern Ireland is not exempt from some of the more fundamental changes to legal practice and this is exemplified by the growing number of solicitor advocates appearing in our courts. This small jurisdiction may well benefit from the presence of firms who are able to keep all services “in-house” and so the solicitor advocate may become a much more permanent fixture at the Royal Courts of Justice as a result.
Moreover, as more English-trained lawyers begin to rate this region, larger firms are much more likely to take on students studying towards the LPC as well as those still studying at the IPLS and GSPLE. The result then is a much more accessible jurisdiction without the complexities of re-training and burdensome qualification requirements that existed previously.
There is no doubt, then, that the Northern Ireland legal marketplace is expanding rapidly and with the national and international light being shone on this jurisdiction, it seems the sector will continue to attract talent and clients from across the globe.
Richard Clements graduated in law from Queen’s University, Belfast in 2012. He currently works as a paralegal at Carson McDowell LLP in Belfast.