There has been something of a brain drain in Northern Ireland in recent years as demand for Northern Irish solicitors from firms across the water continues, with many ambitious young people keen to forge successful careers in London.
Likewise, many law firms in London and Dublin are also actively seeking to recruit solicitors from Northern Ireland as the standard is so high owing to the stellar grades required to get on to law courses. Their hope is that higher salaries will encourage candidates to make the move.
This situation can make it tough for firms in Northern Ireland to attract good candidates. However, it does open up a wealth of opportunities for candidates seeking positions.
For many years the trend of law students moving to England to study has mainly been due to the limited number of places at the law institute in Northern Ireland (92 in total). However, following graduation, many students choose to stay in England, Scotland and Wales, mainly due to the fact that there are more job opportunities and salaries tend to be better (research shows that 30 per cent of Northern Irish students from all disciplines who leave to study elsewhere never return).
Although this trend continues, there has been a shift in recent years that means there is now a two-way flow of solicitors moving between Northern Ireland and mainland UK. Solicitors who have trained and worked in England for a number of years are making the move and returning home as there are opportunities there that did not exist before.
There is a number of reasons for this change, the main factor being that Northern Ireland has seen a major resurgence in the past decade. The stable political climate and the smooth transition to a power-sharing government in Stormont on 7 May 2007 has resulted in a new confidence, a great feeling of enthusiasm and excitement about the future.
The economy is booming: there has been an influx of major inward investment from large multinational companies and the number of entrepreneurs is constantly growing, many of whom are returning expatriates. Northern Ireland is finally beginning to reach the potential it was always capable of.
This is reflected in projects such as the development of the major new Titanic Quarter in Belfast, which will continue for the next few years, the huge retail project Victoria Square opening later this year and the great increase in the number of tourists visiting the province.
The Northern Ireland economy grew by 10 per cent in 2006, according to the Northern Ireland Business Enquiry, with the construction industry alone growing by 18 per cent. Northern Ireland has outperformed all UK regions outside London by way of employment growth in the past few years. In 1996 unemployment in Northern Ireland stood at 10 per cent and now stands at 4.3 per cent. This figure is well below the UK national average, which stands at 5.5 per cent. All of which has resulted in major growth in the legal sector – at such a rate that there are not enough experienced solicitors to fill the new positions, resulting in a skills shortage.
Northern Ireland has meanwhile become a very desirable place to live, work and do business. The republic was recently rated the best country in the world to live in by The Economist, with factors such as increasing wealth and traditional values giving it the characteristics to achieve this position. Northern Ireland also boasts a well-educated population, with almost 40 per cent of school leavers going on to higher education. All of which has helped make the move back to Northern Ireland a very attractive one for expatriates.
Lawyers who have experience of working in England are very marketable, as the Northern Irish firms with gaps in their specialities seek to fill them. While some candidates view this as a real concern, it is a positive shift and a direct result of the increasing strength of the Northern Irish economy. Firms, quite simply, were not prepared for this growth.
Aside from property, the corporate deals market has also spiked, throwing up a raft of issues for lawyers in areas such as corporate tax and pensions, who require broad skills ranging from corporate experience to niche practice areas such as employment.
This has created another phenomenon, with large international legal firms recently opening offices in Northern Ireland. This in turn has opened up the market and certainly raised the game for lawyers here, offering fantastic prospects for all.
With a number of candidates coming from London or Dublin hoping to join reputable commercial practices, this can pose challenges for smaller firms. However, many candidates are finding that the smaller firms can actually offer other incentives that would be impossible for them to gain in London or Dublin.
In terms of lifestyle, this includes the offer of flexible working conditions and working hours. Part-time positions are also not as unusual here as they are in the big City firms. In addition, if a candidate gets a good position in a reputable firm in Northern Ireland, there could be the potential for partnership opportunities that may not be as achievable in London or Dublin.
Firms looking to fill speciality positions such as banking, construction or commercial law may also offer more specialised relocation packages to someone returning from London or Dublin. It is the desire for experience and skills that is paramount, and this is beginning to drive up salaries in Northern Ireland as well as making the market for suitable candidates very competitive. The competition is also helping smaller firms to up their game and compete with the bigger firms.
The legal profession in Northern Ireland, like much of the rest of the economy, is at an exciting stage of development. The opportunities are there for firms to develop in all areas of the legal sector and for candidates to contribute to the growth of the industry. For anyone in the legal profession with experience of London or Dublin, the opportunities in Northern Ireland are there for the taking.
Equally, established solicitors working in niche areas in Northern Ireland are in strong demand with firms in Ireland and across the water.
Orla Milligan is associate director at recruiter PRG