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The legal marketplace remained fairly static last year with few practices making major changes.
Dublin firms Arthur Cox and A&L Goodbody settled into the Belfast marketplace, while Kennedys also got its feet under the table. The discreet presence of Travers Smith Braithwaite in Holywood was also noted.
Arthur Cox’s takeover of Norman Wilson has created some ripples in Belfast, although local firms say they do not know what the firm is actually doing. But chair James O’Dwyer says: “It is going very well. We are doing quite a lot in cross-border work where clients have activities in the north.”
Some of the deals include the acquisition of the Northern Ireland business of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society by the First National Building Society, the sale of Dalgety Agriculture and Munster Simms Engineering, and the acquisition of a portfolio of shopping centres in Northern Ireland by an Irish Food retailer.
A&L Goodbody’s relationship with Elliott Duffy Garrett is somewhat more intangible.
Observers say that there have been hiccups in the relationship, although neither firm admits it. The firms co-operate on some deals and, according to EDG partner Harry Coll, a committee of senior partners meets formally once every three months and personnel from each firm are exchanged. They also run joint seminars on subjects such as client care and make joint presentations for work.
Kennedys partner Sean Craig says that its Belfast office is keeping busy. He adds that because the insurance defence market is so competitive in Belfast most players keep their cards close to their chest.
Few mergers have taken place in Northern Ireland in the past year. One amalgamation was the takeover of Murphy Kerr & Co by Eamon McEvoy, giving this well-respected mid-Ulster practice a Belfast operation. Described as “one of the best commercial practices” in Northern Ireland, local firms eagerly await the impact of the merger on the province.
Another interesting development was the shearing off of Wilson Nesbitt’s defence litigation practice. The firm’s earlier takeover of trade union practice Greene & Gribbon caused problems on the defence insurance side, and a split occurred as a consequence.
“We are now quite a large plaintiff firm,” says Gilbert Nesbitt.
Defence partner Kieran Tully took one assistant and is operating from the old Holywood office of the firm.
Nesbitt says the merger is working well, although three of the five original Greene & Gribbon solicitors have left.
Wilson Nesbitt’s targeting of self assessment tax business has resulted in the firm hiring a tax accountant. “We can’t keep up with the work,” Nesbitt says.
The firm is not doing any audit work as it would not be covered under indemnity rules.
Unlike most other practice in Northern Ireland, it has embraced the concept of marketing and Nesbitt is looking forward to the day when multidisciplinary partnerships are part of the legal landscape.