Top 30 Northern Ireland law firms

Northern Irish firms have not expanded at the rate of their Dublin colleagues, but the outlook is good provided that the new political accommodation goes according to plan.

In terms of growth, Belfast firm Madden & Finucane has moved to the number one slot. The firm, which represented Sinn Fein in the recent political negotiations, is doing an increasing amount of judicial review work and opening new offices across Northern Ireland.

Cleaver Fulton & Rankin moves from first place to third. However, the firm was hit by the departure of defamation/ product liability partner Paul Spring and his assistant to Mills Selig earlier this year. It is believed to the the first major partner move in Belfast circles and was the subject of litigation.

Paul Spring said he was “sad” that litigation was necessary as he had been upfront about his intentions. Neil Faris of Cleaver Fulton says that the matter was “all resolved now” and that the firm was setting up a media law unit.

Spring will develop a litigation practice for Mills Selig. He has also brought a number of his media clients with him. Meanwhile, Cleaver Fulton has appointed three new partners.

Carson & McDowell has moved to number two and, according to partner Brian Turtle, is “expanding furiously”. Wilson Nesbitt retains its fourth spot and has taken the unprecedented step of appointing a business development manager, which is “an attempt to systematically develop business”, says Gilbert Nesbitt.

The arrival of UK firm Kennedys is starting to have an impact, according to some observers. Belfast managing partner Sean Craig says the office is going so well that plans to link up with a Dublin firm are under consideration. The firm is targeting insurance defence work.

However, Paul Tweed of Johnsons, which is highly regarded in this field, says his firm has never been busier.

Tughan & Co is expanding its corporate department headed by John George Willis.

Arthur Cox’s Belfast office is making its presence felt and is doing well, according to some Belfast lawyers who had initially expressed scepticism at the Dublin firm’s move.

According to managing partner James O’ Dwyer, the firm has just moved offices and is attracting a lot of cross-border business.

However, the impact of A&L Goodbody’s link-up with Elliott Duffy Garrett is rather more questionable. Michael Lynch of the Elliott Duffy says the association is more like a referral arrangement. “It’s more “suck it and see’,” he says adding that the Dublin firm was “very busy”.

Belfast firms are fearful about the impact of the accountants. Coopers & Lyband is recruiting lawyers and engaging in some quasi-legal work. One firm complained that legal documents it submitted came back “with corrections” from an accountancy firm.

A more immediate danger comes from the London/ Dublin firms currently creaming off the top commercial work. Clifford Chance’s referral of work for Safeway is believed to have caused some consternation at the London firm in terms of the fee involved.

In a bid to attempt to compete for this work, a number of firms are setting up specialist departments and some have even moved to more commercial premises.