Firms in the Republic are mopping up huge amounts of work on the back of a booming economy and a major trend towards privatisation – so much so that there aren't enough lawyers to meet the demand. Fenella Quinn reports.
The overwhelming message still emerging from the Republic of Ireland is that business is booming, coffers are full and the legal scene is enjoying a remarkably lucrative period.
Even before Ireland became part of the euro zone, its economy was on the up, and now with low interest rates – around four per cent – full employment very close and a staggering growth rate last year of 10 per cent, the economic scene is clearly bursting with health.
However, as Declan Moylan, managing partner of, Mason Hayes & Curran, warns: “The trick for the government is to make sure we have a soft landing. We see that prosperity needs to be managed as a real issue.”
According to Moylan, litigation arising from the freedom of Information Act 1997 is beginning to filter through and his firm represents the Information Commissioner, the Ombudsman set up by the Act, in these hearings. A major trend towards deregulation and privatisation is also creating a huge amount of work, as is the PPP (public private partnerships) factor – the Irish equivalent of PFI.
Anything attracting major capital investment such as motorways, rail and hospitals may now be subject to PPP arrangements, which is particularly good news for lawyers who concentrate on the construction business.
“A lot of Dublin firms are tooling up to tap into PPP and construction work,” says Moylan.
The IT sector is also providing more and more work, particularly on the corporate finance side. Technology companies find early listing much easier than do traditional companies, and, with so many now settled in Ireland, this is providing a rich seam of work for IT lawyers.
With all this work around, the main problem seems to be finding the lawyers to do it. Furthermore, wage expectations are now very high. Donal Roche, managing partner of Matheson Ormsby Prentice, does not see the employment situation improving in the short term, borne out by his firm's recent poaching of three partners from A&L Goodbody.
“I think we'll see the US economy start slowing, because it's at the end of a long cycle, and that will impact on Ireland and the UK.”
Roche dismisses existing alliances between southern and northern firms as paper arrangements. “It is just so they can say that they can give an all-Ireland legal service. They're not substantive [arrangements].”
However, Roche predicts that the legal market will start to change dramatically in any event as large accountancy firms start to float and then buy up law firms in return for shares rather than cash.
Roche believes that older partners will be attracted by this sort of deal because they will be able to cash in their partnerships for massive amounts of money, while the share options will prove attractive to younger partners.
Managing partner: Frank O'Riordan
No of partners: 50
No of fee earners: 340
Main practice areas: All aspects of commercial and corporate law
With other offices in London, Brussels, Boston and New York, A&L Goodbody is the largest firm in Ireland. It has seen “huge growth” in corporate finance work, particularly in technology and the firm has had a dedicated Technology Law Unit for the past 11 years. New partners this year include David Glynn in the tax department, Mairead Sherlock in property, who has come over from Arthur Cox, Alison Fanagan in environmental law, Eoin MacNeill in sports law and Eileen Roberts in litigation. While the firm has “strong links” with many UK and European firms, it has a no-alliance policy.
Cases this year have included representing the director of Telecommunications Regulation against BroadNet in relation to fixed wireless point-to-multipoint access licence, and advising in the liquidation of MMI Stockbrokers. The firm acted for ACC Bank and Ulster Bank in relation to the inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee and it advised Bank of Scotland (Ireland) in relation to a £6.8m (sterling) project at Drumglass High School, the first education PFI project in Northern Ireland. It has also advised in many high quality PPP deals involving education and healthcare.
Managing partner: Ronan Maloney (Chairman)
No of partners: 53
No of fee earners: 130
Main practice areas: Banking and financial services, corporate/commercial, commercial property, construction, IT, IP, EU competition law, private client, tax
Like most of its rivals, McCann Fitzgerald is doing a lot of work in the technology and dotcom sectors, advising on start-ups, IPOs and financing. The firm has also seen growth in PPP and energy-related work.
Three new partners have joined this year and important instructions include defending smoking-related claims for Imperial Tobacco Ltd, advising NTL in relation to the sale of Cablelink and representing Fitzwilton plc in the first Irish Takeover Panel hearing. On the energy side, the firm has been instructed by Ireland Power, Edenderry Power, Bord Gais Eireann and Marathon Petroleum, and advised in a number of wind farm projects.
Together with Belfast-based L'Estrange & Brett, with which the firm has founded the North South Legal Alliance, McCanns has been advising on various PPP projects in the Department of Education and in local government. As well as the Northern Ireland link, McCanns also has offices in London, Brussels and New York.
Senior partner: Houghton Fry
No of partners: 30
No of fee earners: 110
Main areas of practice: Full business law practice
Since November last year, William Fry has had an association with Belfast-based Tughan & Co, and has also grown by acquiring three new partners this year.
As with other southern firms, technology is big business for William Fry, which has an impressive array of technology clients under its belt. The recent spate of flotations in the technology arena has not passed Ireland by, and the firm has acted in many of them in recent months.
It represented Baltimore in its recent flotation on the stock exchange as well handling flotations on the Dublin, London and Nasdaq stock exchanges variously for Horizon Technology Group plc, Riverdeep and Iona.
With 13 lawyers in the technology group, including four partners, it can indeed boast one of the largest technology practices in Ireland. Venture capital work goes hand in hand with technology, and the firm reports a big increase in this type of work across the board. Among some of the larger deals it has acted in is Esat's £1.9bn sterling takeover by BT. The firm also reports strong growth in its tax practice.
MATHESON ORMSBY PRENTICE
Managing partner: Donal Roche
No of partners: 32
No of fee earners: 152
Main areas of practice: General corporate, corporate finance, financial services, tax, IT
The 32-partner Matheson Ormsby Prentice has two other offices, one in London and one in the US in Palo Alto's Silicon Valley.
With 10 lawyers and three partners in its IT unit, the firm claims to have the largest IT practice in Southern Ireland and reports a thriving practice in this area. Other growth areas are public private partnerships (PPP), financial services, tax and corporate finance.
Clients include the ICC bank, which instructed Mathesons for its proposed privatisation, and Ireland's television Broadcasting Corporation (OTE) on the privatisation of its infrastructure, which is in progress.
Corporate deals include acting for the Post Office in the sale of its £150m (punts) Ireland Online operation; Apion's sale of shares worth US$263m (£164m) to PhoneCom and the £659m management buyout of Cantrall & Cochrane Group Ltd, acting for BC Partners.
The firm has taken on seven new partners this year, including three from A&L Goodbody, and is also expanding its large tax group.
ireland's other main firms
Mason Hayes & Curran
PJ O'Driscoll & Sons
Whitney Moore & Keller
Ireland's Other Main Firms
Mason Hayes & Curran
PJ O'Driscoll & Sons
Whitney Moore & Keller