There are few structural changes among local firms in the Northern Irish marketplace this year, where the top performers show little sign of expansion. The major change comes from outside the province with the arrival of London firm Kennedys and Dublin firm Arthur Cox.

There are constant rumours that other UK firms are looking at the area but so far none have announced plans. “Half the commercial lawyers are so paranoid that these rumours keep going around,” says Gilbert Nesbitt of Wilson Nesbitt. “But they should be able to compete on equal terms and do very well.”

There has been no significant growth among firms and little change in the rankings from last year. The firm which has shown the greatest increase in size is Wilson Nesbitt. It has added nine fee earners, partly because of a merger with Greene & Gribbon and partly because it is expansion minded.

The merger is the only one featured in the survey. At first sight, it is an odd mix, with Nesbitts specialising in private client and commercial work while Greene & Gribbon was a boutique employment and personal injury firm with a strong trade union link.

“We were trying to get to Belfast for a couple of years. We needed to be there,” says partner Gilbert Nesbitt, who describes the move as a perfect match. “Also Greene & Gribbon have a diverse client base to add to our private client base. They were passing on conveyancing, probate and financial services to other firms of solicitors.”

On the reaction of trade union clients to the merger, he says: “Obviously one has to be sensitive to their perceptions.”

He adds: “Mergers can be a be a bit of a shock for everyone. Partnership is a major step and we have had long conversations trying to sort out culture, direction and strategy.”

On breakdown of work, figures reveal a rise of company commercial and commercial property work as well as employment law. Some firms have experienced a small decline in civil litigation.

One trend is the emergence of women partners in firms. “Women are now starting to appear at the more senior end of the profession,” says Vera Woods of Johns Elliott.

Recently a number of firms have appointed women partners. Elliott Duffy Garrett has appointed two, Adrienne Brock and Christine Hamilton, while Rosalie Prytherch has become a partner at Cleaver Fulton & Rankin. Tughan & Co has four women among its nine partners.

However, Woods conceded it was still difficult for women to get to the top, and added that there are still no women above Circuit Registrar level.