Nothing to fear

What could be more straightforward than an investigation by the Competi-tion Authority into a group of service providers, with a view to ensuring that the optimum range and quality of services is available in the marketplace at attractive and competitive prices?
The authority says it is looking to identify “any potential or actual restrictions on competition, whether arising from legal provisions, professional rules or customs, or otherwise, that have an appreciable effect on competition”. I believe the profession has a clean sheet on that account. There is a perception that all lawyers are too well paid, that they are greedy and that the legal barrel is riddled with bad apples. This is not the case. The study presents an excellent opportunity to present the facts in a public way and to explode the myths that tend to cloud the public view of the legal profession.
Let's take the issue of liability and compensation. How many other professions offer clients the level of comfort and security afforded by the solicitors profession, including compulsory personal liability and a compensation fund contributed to by every solicitor in the country? This is another common myth related to the view that solicitors are self-regulated. The reality is that there is a system of co-regulation, in which the Irish High Court, along with the Law Society, will strike off any errant solicitor.
Last year there were 474 entrants into the solicitors profession in Ireland – a healthy growth rate by any standard. There is a variety of possible routes of entry for both law and non-law graduates and a great degree of mobility after qualification. There is no structural obstacle, for example, in a conveyancer becoming an employment lawyer, or any other specialist, which is a freedom not enjoyed by many other professions.
There are almost 6,000 solicitors holding a practising certificate from the Irish Law Society; 83 per cent of solicitors in Ireland work in legal practices, but there are only 16 firms with more than 20 solicitors. It is therefore no surprise that the development of specialist and niche commercial legal services has relied on a handful of firms with the energy, firepower and confidence to make the substantial and continuous investment required to develop truly specialist, high-quality professional services. When you consider that the development of specialist legal expertise has come from the solicitor side of the legal profession rather than from the Bar, you begin to understand the role of the big commercial legal firms in servicing both Irish corporate legal requirements and international business. The statistics paint only part of the picture. They don't tell the story of a dynamic and disciplined sector of the profession that has moved with the times.
As in every business, market forces have been the strongest agent of change. I believe that growth and profitability come from an ability to truly understand the markets we service and our role in them. For example, a considerable portion of A&L Goodbody's work comes from UK and international law firms. Undoubtedly, exposure to, and collaboration with, the best firms in the world has influenced the firm's development. Goodbodys is not, however, in the business of trying to emulate these firms. Rather, the firm concentrates on understanding what it can do best and aims to do it better than anyone else. It's a simple strategy but I believe it has served us well.
A law firm is not a complex business model. There are three core aspects – the clients, the lawyers and their know-how. We focus on gaining competitive advantage in the way that these core aspects are managed. This includes lawyers appreciating that their clients see the law and the lawyers' knowledge as merely a means to an end and nothing more. Professionals driven by such an ethic can have nothing to fear from the Competition Authority's reviews.
Paul Carroll is the managing partner of A&L Goodbody. Earlier this year, he led the Irish legal team advising the Valentia consortium on the takeover of eircom