Magic of a spell abroad

There have been a number of recent pointers to the strength of the legal market in Ireland.

In January 1996, Arthur Cox became the first firm from outside Northern Ireland to establish a practice in Belfast. Its decision was apparently made some time before the ceasefire.

And, at the end of 1995, another of Dublin's leading firms, A&L Goodbody, established an association with Belfast's Elliott Duffy Garrett to form A&L Goodbody – Northern Ireland Association. The venture is the first to offer a combined legal service across the jurisdictions.

Also, and perhaps most surprisingly, came the announcement that Kennedys, one of the City's leading specialist insurance practices, was to open an office in Belfast.

The future is bright, though there seems little doubt that this cannot be put down solely to the ceasefire. The improving pan-European economic climate has played its part, with many Irish lawyers reporting growth across the spectrum of commercial areas for the first time in years.

At present there is also large-scale inward investment from the UK, the European Union, and from the US. Attracting foreign companies continues to be a priority for the Irish Government, and there are well over 1,000 now based in the country. They provide employment and much sought-after legal work for local practices. Increasingly, law firms are finding that their business has moved from its original domestic base to become more international.

All of these features have played their part in making Ireland an attractive region for job seekers, and solicitors from elsewhere are being tempted. There has always been traffic between London and Dublin. In the same way that Australian and New Zealand lawyers find two or three years' experience with a big City of London firm is invaluable in furthering their careers back home, such a spell can provide a selling point on the CV of an Irish lawyer.

Indeed, when looking to recruit, many Dublin firms will specifically look for a solicitor who has experience in major M&A, corporate finance or banking work that can only be found by working among the elite. And in the future, international demands will only heighten interest in recruiting lawyers in other niche areas.

City of London firms, whose needs and interests are acute, are not being philanthropists by employing solicitors from the regions. Even though an Irish lawyer may have no London experience, the shortage of good quality and enthusiastic young candidates (especially at the two- to four-year qualified level) means that the City has to look outside for recruits.

While the years 1990 to 1994 were a depressed period, during which home supply to the City was greater than demand, the situation has now changed. Foreign qualified lawyers are back in demand. The fact that the anticipated career span of such individuals in London will only be two to three years is not a drawback in times of need.

And it is not just experience that solicitors gain during a sojourn in London. The salary levels in the City are considerably higher than in Ireland.

A two-year qualified lawyer coming from the regions could expect to receive around £34,000 a year from a leading City firm, compared to around £20,000 to £24,000 in Dublin. But upwards pressure on Irish salaries should rise in tune with the increasingly wide-ranging demands and skills required by the expanding international client base.

It seems unlikely that Irish law firms will be forging exclusive relationships with counterparts in England. Although they are constantly striving to cultivate strong links with foreign law firms because of the dependence on inward investment, the market is small and exclusive relationships would damage the flow of referrals from other practices.

Perhaps, for now, it is far-fetched to suggest that English lawyers might in time seek a spell in Dublin. But with the variety and quantity of work now available there, the idea is certainly food for thought.