Leading firms have been able to consolidate their positions in terms of both market share and prestige in wake of UK decision
Brexit was supposed to herald an influx of British law firms to Ireland, keen to maintain a foothold within the EU.
But more than five years after the seismic vote, the invasion has not materialised. If anything, leading Irish firms have been able to consolidate their positions, both in terms of market share and prestige.
The latter is reflected in the Sunday Independent’s first annual list of the best law firms in Ireland.
Irish operators dominate the list of the top 75 firms, as voted for by lawyers in a survey by business data firm Statista.
Just 10 foreign-headquartered firms make the grade and most already had a foothold in Ireland before the UK voted to leave the EU.
But the firms selected by their peers to make up the Best Law Firms 2022 list aren’t just the multinational law firms and traditional big beast corporate law firms of the Irish legal sector.
Also included are well-established criminal defence firms, and smaller boutique practices dealing with areas such as family law, employment law, immigration, personal injuries, medical negligence and personal insolvency.
Some 1,084 legal professionals took part in the survey and voting for one’s own law firm was prohibited. Unsurprisingly, the “big seven” Irish firms in terms of estimated annual turnover all feature — Arthur Cox, A&L Goodbody, McCann FitzGerald, Matheson, William Fry, Mason Hayes & Curran and Dillon Eustace.
Geographically, Dublin dominates. Of the 75 firms, 61 have offices in the capital, 13 have offices in Cork, four in Galway, two in Limerick, two in Kildare, two in Wicklow, and one in each of Monaghan, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon and Tipperary.
Some firms on the list, such as personal injury and medical negligence specialists Callan Tansey, commercial dispute resolution firm Holmes, and banking, commercial and employment law firm Ronan Daly Jermyn have offices in several counties.
In compiling the list of the 75 best firms, Statista recorded the various fields of law in which each practice was commended by voters.
Commercial dispute resolution was the most common area of specialisation where a commendation was given, featuring for 22 out of the 75 firms.
The next most prevalent were banking and finance (19), commercial property (18), employment (18), and personal injuries and medical negligence (14).
Four practices commended by voters for their specialisation in criminal law also made the list.
They were Dublin firm Michael J Staines & Company, whose clients include MMA star Conor McGregor, Dublin firm Sheehan & Partners, which has represented former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Cork firm Frank Buttimer & Company, which acts for Ian Bailey, the former chief suspect in the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder case; and well-regarded Limerick firm Darach McCarthy
Three firms commended by voters in the area of human rights and immigration made the list. These were Berkeley Solicitors, Blasco Solicitors & Notary Public, and KOD Lyons.
Other practices commended for niche specialisations included Gartlan Furey and Aileen Keogan Solicitor and Tax Consultant (inheritance and succession), Philip Lee (media and entertainment), Noble Shipping Law (maritime and shipping) and Anthony Joyce & Co (personal insolvency).
A full list of the 75 firms and the specialisations they were commended for can be seen in the table on page 5.
In addition to voting on who should be included in the list of best firms, participants were asked a range of questions, the answers to which give a unique insight into challenges and developments shaping the sector.
Some of the most interesting answers came from “in-house” lawyers — solicitors directly working for companies.
The in-house role often involves collaborating with outside law firms contracted to do specific work for the company.
Asked if they preferred a link up with a big international law firm or a boutique practice, a clear majority, 56.3pc of respondents, indicated a preference for the boutique option.
Just one in eight said that they would rather work with a big international firm, while just under a third said they had no preference.
Of those whose motto was “boutique is best”, reasons for their choice included more flexibility, attention to detail, and the ability to provide a more empathetic and personal experience to clients.
In-house lawyers who expressed a preference for working with a big international practice cited better policies and staff management and the ability to better align with business needs as reasons for their choice.
The international firms who made the list included two Cayman Islands-headquartered firms, Walkers, which has had an Irish office since 2010, and Maples Group, which has operated here since 2006.
Multinational firm Dentons, the fifth largest in the world in terms of revenue, also makes the list, while seven London-headquartered firms with Irish operations were also selected.
These were DAC Beachcroft, DLA Piper, Eversheds Sutherland, Fieldfisher, Kennedys Law, Pinsent Masons and Simmons & Simmons.
Of these, only Pinsent Masons has opened an office in Ireland since the Brexit vote, but it had intended doing so before then anyway.
While around 4,000 England and Wales qualified solicitors joined the Irish roll of solicitors in the aftermath of the vote, relatively few set up office in Ireland. Most joined the roll to protect their EU practicing rights, such as rights of audience at the Court of Justice of the European Union and legal privilege, primarily in EU competition law matters.
But a clarification issued by the Law Society last year means such solicitors will not be entitled to Irish practising certificates, the licence needed to practise, unless they have a presence here.
The move put a real dent in a lot of UK law firms’ Brexit planning as it effectively closed an Irish backdoor to the EU courts for UK lawyers unless they are willing to set up practices in Ireland.
Meanwhile, an ‘Ireland for Law’ initiative, spearheaded by the Bar of Ireland, the Law Society, the IDA and the Department of Justice, has been aiming to capitalise on Brexit.
It is holding events promoting Ireland as a destination for international dispute resolution by highlighting its status as the remaining English-speaking fully common law jurisdiction in the EU.
Against this background, it is perhaps unsurprising the Statista survey indicates more optimism than pessimism among Irish lawyers about the potential impact of Brexit.
More than a third said they believe it would help their business, 46pc said it would not affect them, while one in five think it will hinder their operations.
Of those who believe Brexit will bring benefits, reasons cited include Ireland’s unique position as a common law jurisdiction in the EU and the opportunities this could create in the area of dispute resolution and taking business from London.
Others felt Ireland would become a more attractive location for investment compared to the UK and that more regulated financial work would come to Ireland.
One respondent said increased regulatory complexity as a result of Brexit would lead to opportunities for Irish lawyers.
One firm told Statista that immigration law queries had tripled since Brexit had taken effect.
Another respondent said many clients affected by Brexit were seeking alternative immigration solutions, requiring the services of Irish immigration lawyers.
Of those with a more pessimistic outlook on the impact of Brexit, issues highlighted included fears the economy as a whole could be damaged, having an affect on business.
Others cited fears of less cross-border activity and increased difficulty of British clients doing business in Ireland.
Some respondents also fear UK law firms may yet begin setting up in Ireland in sufficient numbers to increase competition.