There was a sharp intake of breath amongst Northern Irish firms when they heard that London-based Kennedys and Dublin-based Arthur Cox were to open offices in the province last year. As one local lawyer said: “After all the years of people not so much as wanting to stay overnight, it is annoying that they are ready to cash in at the first sign of peace.”
President of the Northern Irish Law Society George Palmer, of Peden & Reid, also sums up the view of many local solicitors: “We are not crying in our cups and we are not going to pack up our tents and run. But we are not overly delighted that these people are practising in our area and coming to help us reap our peace dividend.” However, he realistically adds: “In a modern world you cannot be protectionist so long as there is a level playing field.”
The fear, though, is that the playing field is not level. Firms such as 129 fee-earner Kennedys and 82 fee-earner Arthur Cox have considerably bigger operations than most Northern Irish firms where the biggest has 27 fee earners.
Belfast solicitors remember only too well the influx of London firms when the province's lucrative privatisation projects needed work. Only the crumbs came the way of Belfast firms, with London firms successful on every count in getting the main work.
A group of three local firms banded together in 1992 in a bid to accumulate enough mass to be considered for bids. However, the CME Group, comprised of Carson & McDowell, Mills Selig and Elliott Duffy Garrett, spectacularly failed to secure any work. It was disbanded last year when Elliotts linked up with Dublin firm A&L Goodbody in a European Economic Interest Grouping.
“We were probably too late in coming together,” says Stratton Mills, of Mills Selig.
However, the network was not entirely a failure. “It gave us the opportunity, in terms of profile, to be considered for things individually,” says Mills. He points out that size plays a major part in the dilemma facing Northern Irish firms: “In terms of servicing clients coming in, this is something we all have to address by specialisation.”
Despite this, he adds, amalgamations are not the answer. They cause too many conflicts in small marketplace.
Brian Stewart of O'Reilly Steward says the new arrivals “showed there was a terrible splintering in the local profession. There are too many small firms.” Despite the anxiety which the arrivals have caused, there is also some scepticism as to what they will achieve in Belfast. Stewart feels they will not receive the fees they command in Dublin and London.
Paul Tweed, of John Johnson & Co, is also sceptical as to what the newcomers can offer that is different from the service Belfast firms currently provide.
However, Kennedys is convinced there is a demand for the type of service it can offer.
Partner Sean Craig, who says he has the highest regard for local solicitors, comments: “We are here because some of our clients said we would get work. The clients who said they would give us business did.” Much of the firm's work in Belfast was insurance, he adds.
Craig says it was not “impossible for anyone else to provide the service we propose. We have been told that although firms here get the right results, they perhaps don't jump through the hoops the same way as London firms.”
The firm is also eyeing up the Dublin market place. Craig says Kennedys is hearing “the same things it heard about Belfast. Clients say they would like someone to open in Dublin with City expertise.” However, he adds that Kennedys has no plans to make the move as yet, and will wait to see how the Belfast office fares.
Commenting on Arthur Cox's Belfast opening, James O'Dwyer says the firm believes it is the right move. “We have a number of cross-border clients which is why we made the decision. We are doing quite a lot of finance work, property work and EU work in terms of competition.” The office has three resident lawyers which includes two partners.
There are no strong signals that any of the other Dublin or English firms are moving to Belfast, though there are always rumours. Most Dublin firms say they are doing an increasing amount of cross-border work, but are happy to service it from Dublin or develop links with Northern Ireland firms, as Goodbodys has done with Elliotts. Brian Garrett, of Elliotts, describes that relationship as “working wonderfully. It is a greater success than either would have thought. Our profile has gone up dramatically.”
Goodbodys has a resident lawyer in Belfast, as has Elliotts in Dublin. Goodbodys “sometimes does work itself, and in some cases we do it jointly, depending on where it emanates from,” says Garrett.