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The decision of Mason Hayes & Curran to open its first international office in New York earlier this year was a surprise, if only because it has been so long in coming.
Most top-tier Irish firms, such as A&L Goodbody, Arthur Cox, Matheson Ormsby Prentice and McCann FitzGerald, have had a foreign office of some form or other for a number of years (see table). The only exception is William Fry, which closed its only international office in London in 1993.
Opening a New York office at a time when the world economy is only a couple of rungs off the bottom is clearly a risky strategy, but one that Mason Hayes managing partner Declan Moylan not only believes is right, but also that the time is right to pursue it.
He says that the firm has been committed to the US for a number of years, but has traditionally relied on flying partners out as and when required. It was the success of these visits that prompted the latest move.
The attractions of the US are clear. It is Ireland's largest inward investor, it is the largest direct investor in the economy and it is also its second-largest trading partner. Indeed, it is the US's inward investment money that most of the firms are chasing.
"It's a deeply important economic relationship between Ireland and the US," says Moylan. "It's nothing to do with historical links between us - that's of no consequence. It's simply based on an objective analysis."
In bringing in Daniel Walsh, former in-house counsel with Bear Stearns & Co, the firm has opted for a different strategy than those of its competitors. In fact, between the four US offices of Irish firms, none follows the same model.
A&L Goodbody opened its first New York office in 1978. Initially, it was managed by a permanent partner (six of the current partnership have served in New York), but more recently it has retained a consultant, Aidan Browne, to oversee its US operations, which now comprise an office in Boston, where Browne is based, and one in New York.
David Sanfey, head of the commercial department at A&L Goodbody and himself a former New York-based partner, refutes the suggestion that the move from a permanent partner presence to a part-time consultant is a downgrading of the firm's commitment to North America. "It was a function of our strength, in that we have six partners who have each spent time out there," emphasises Sanfey. "We have another two partners who travel out there regularly as well, so our view is that we don't need a partner out there when we're all still so involved."
Perhaps more importantly, he says, it is also significantly more cost-effective "at a time when the partners are probably more valuable here, allowing us to make the most of our partner time".
He says that having an Irish partner based permanently in the US is just not good value for money, certainly not at the moment. Once that is accepted, it is not difficult to see the benefits of the consultant option.
A non-resident lawyer, no matter how regularly they visit, is unlikely to be able to match the experience, consistency, connections and market knowledge that a locally-based consultant can bring. On the other hand, can a consultant ever know a firm, its strengths, its people and its culture as well as one of its own lawyers?
It is a fine balancing act, and the unwillingness to commit a permanent partner to the US market is characteristic of all the Irish firms. Arthur Cox's New York office, for example, also has no resident lawyer, being managed by London-based partner John Matson, who divides his time between the two cities.
Another option, of course, is to have a permanent presence but at sub-partner level. This brings its own drawbacks, however. A more junior resident lawyer, often in the post for one or two years before being replaced, is unlikely to have the impact or experience a partner can offer. Neither does it offer the consistency of having a long-term consultancy relationship. It is a hell of a lot cheaper, though, and it does bring a direct Irish legal presence and knowledge of the firm to bear.
This was the option chosen by Mathesons, the only other Irish firm with a permanent presence in the US, and the only one on the West Coast. Its office in Palo Alto is looked after by associate Deirdre Dunne, who has been resident there since 1997.
California's key attraction is technology and venture capital, in contrast with New York's financial and M&A work and Boston's venture capital and finance.
Despite the technology slump, Mathesons managing partner Andrew Doyle says that the office is invaluable, not just for technology work (although with clients such as Hewlett-Packard Compaq and Microsoft that clearly plays a part), but also for the crucial inward investment work. With Dunne married to the local representative of the Irish Investment and Development Agency, it is work that the firm is well placed to compete for.
"It's less of an advantage now, but it's still a significant advantage nevertheless. It's like asking if the glass is full or three-quarters full. Well, it's three-quarters full, whereas three or four years ago it was absolutely brimming. That doesn't take away from the fact that strategically it's a fantastic thing to have, and we've benefited from it enormously," says Doyle.
Dunne is due to return to Dublin later this year, but Doyle says the firm will definitely be sending out another Irish lawyer to replace her.
Outside the US, the firms are bolder in their foreign adventures. The UK is Ireland's largest trading partner and London's importance as a financial centre means it is almost a second home for many of the firms.
McCann FitzGerald, absent from North America, has a London office. Until John Cronin returned to Dublin in September, there were two resident partners. Cronin says that he expects another will be relocating shortly to work alongside Barbara Judge in London.
Three other firms have partners in London: Mathesons currently has three partners based there, A&L Goodbody has two and Arthur Cox has one partner who also covers New York.
"London's attraction has always been finance work, with some corporate. The strength of our London office has always been in the structured finance arena, whether it's securitisation, project finance, capital markets or conventional banking. There's very good clients and high-quality work there," says Cronin.
One of the difficulties with representative foreign offices, whether in Europe or the US, is gauging their success.
If a client makes contact in New York, but subsequently deals mainly with Dublin and the work is carried out in Dublin, how much do you apportion to the New York office? For future work from the same client, should any of that be apportioned to New York?
And if a London relationship is only one of a series of contacts with the client, how much credit should that office get?
"You get into all kinds of false accounting," says Owen O'Connell, managing partner of William Fry. "You find yourself notionally allocating either work or billing, or both, to the office in order to justify its expense. It then leads to intense politicking about how it's done, what the allocation rules are, and if indeed you want that office doing that work, and wouldn't they be better off doing the marketing and meeting people?"
It is a problem that O'Connell himself may soon have to start grappling with as the firm considers opening an office in the US. It currently services the market from Dublin and is looking to upgrade that system to a permanent office.
The solution, he says, for North America at least, is to follow the English model and establish an entity that is big enough to look after itself, to service existing clients and to win new ones in that location, but he is not too optimistic.
"Frankly, I don't think this law firm, any other Irish law firm, is going to be big enough in the foreseeable future to sustain such an investment," he concludes.