Lateral movement between Ireland's leading firms was until recently virtually non-existent. This is now changing, and the demand for quality practitioners on both sides of the border has sparked fierce competition among local firms and enhanced the bargaining power of associates.

There is a general perception that a large proportion of vacancies are being filled by returning emigrants, anxious to make their way home in search of a better standard of living.

So how has this explosion in lateral moves affected recruitment in Ireland, and what can firms offer to those who might wish to return?

Richard Gray is a corporate/commercial partner at Belfast firm L'Estrange & Brett. He joined the firm in 1992, having trained at City firm Cameron Markby Hewitt, now CMS Cameron McKenna.

“We've recruited quite a few people from City firms,” says Gray. “It started 10 years ago, but recently it's become more prevalent. It probably began initially because it was difficult to get locally qualified lawyers with the right specialisms. But as firms have grown the pace has quickened.”

L'Estrange itself has trebled in size in the last eight years and now has 36 solicitors, including 10 partners. While small by City standards, this makes the firm one of the biggest in Northern Ireland. And while Gray is aware that firms in the North will never reach Dublin standards, he is adamant that his firm will grow further still. “There are more firms competing for people coming back, and recruitment costs are higher than ever. Well-trained personnel are the benefits of growth,” he says.

But it is getting more difficult to hold on to staff. Gray says: “Traditionally, though not quite a job for life, there was little lateral movement between local firms. [Scottish firm] McGrigor Donald came with a bang – it was the advent of head hunting.” And with the huge growth in the Dublin market the firm has the added difficulty of competing with bigger salaries and a wider range of work in the Republic.

Paul Carroll will take over as managing partner at Dublin firm A&L Goodbody in May. He is currently a commercial partner and has been with the firm for more than 20 years.

“There's a dearth of talent but a huge demand for good people,” says Carroll. “Do we continue to seek new people? Yes. Do we continue to recruit? Yes. It's the same as London, Hong Kong and Belfast. It's a barometer of market growth.”

Dublin associates have enjoyed soaring salaries in recent years (although this has yet to spread to Northern Ireland), but Carroll says that those returning to Ireland are doing so because of a lifestyle choice. “More Irish lawyers have returned in the past five to seven years than we have seen previously. It could be in response to wage increases, but most do it for lifestyle issues and because they're pleased and surprised by the level and calibre of work in Dublin.”

But can Ireland offer such a difference? Dublin's roads are congested and its public transport system is a shadow of London's. Wages may be higher than in Belfast, but not enough in many cases to compensate for higher house prices and a cost of living comparable to that in London.

People like Michael Benson have taken advantage of the dearth of professionals. A former solicitor, Benson gave up his profession to set up a legal recruitment agency in 1997. He has been working in this lucrative market, on both sides of the border, ever since.

“Salaries in Dublin's top five and those at the top in Belfast aren't comparable. In many cases, you'll find Belfast lawyers attracted to Dublin. People want to come back; they're not getting off boats in their droves, but it's a steady stream,” he says.

But it is not only Irish emigrants that are arriving. “Australians and South Africans are attracted to Ireland. They see it as an opportunity to earn good cash as they go on a world tour. Sometimes they have family or strong romantic links here.”

But it is not as simple as taking the first plane back. Benson says: “Senior people in their late 30s who are a bit tired of working in the UK are going to face difficulties. They don't have a portable client base and they've been infiltrated into their current firm's culture. Also, any new firm would have to customise its partnership to make room for them. More time and energy is being put into the ways in which they recruit. Head hunting is more proactive. They've become aware of the necessity of advertising their presence, having a higher profile, being household names to attract glossy, snazzy young lawyers.”

But new recruits have to pay the price: in return for higher wages, they have begun to see a London work ethos entering the market, in which solicitors are expected to work longer hours for higher rewards. n