Tuesday 26 March 2019

DLA Piper chief has global ambition for new Irish base

In person: David Carthy, Country managing partner Ireland, DLA Piper

DLA Piper country managing partner David Carthy says he has always been interested in international business. Photo: Damien Eagers
DLA Piper country managing partner David Carthy says he has always been interested in international business. Photo: Damien Eagers
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

There's a new big fish in the relatively small pond that is the Irish legal world. DLA Piper - one of the world's largest law firms - has set up an office in Dublin where it wants to be a disruptive force in the sector.

Country managing partner David Carthy is charged with building the Irish operation from scratch, and is on the hunt for talent.

He's joined DLA after 19 years at Dublin law firm William Fry, and wants to build a law firm "not simply consisting of people born of Ireland and educated at Irish universities", and with more women at senior level.

"You always have to make sure that your staff look like your clients and that they match where you're coming from. And I think there's far greater diversity in business generally than there is at senior levels in law," he said. "Also, to be under-represented in areas of significant talent makes no business sense."

It's Carthy's first stint as a managing partner. Making the move to management is always an interesting transition, as it requires a different set of skills that may not have been needed in a person's career to date.

"It's very interesting, you learn a lot. Talk to me in a few years and I'll tell you how I've done," he says, adding that he does have some previous experience in business development, having spent time on the road trying to win business.

Part of his pitch to potential new clients will be DLA Piper's global reach. With offices in more than 40 countries, it will be able to target companies looking to expand into a large variety of markets.

Many existing clients have operations here, which provides opportunities for the firm to sell more services.

"The only thing DLA wasn't doing before was doing Irish law. It was already acting for organisations based here and has a significant amount of clients in Ireland anyway," Carthy says.

"What opening an office here does is it enables us to get closer. It enables us to provide Irish advice to our global clients, but it also enables us to get closer and bring the global platform to Irish companies who otherwise don't have that choice of global services on their doorstep."

Sector-wise it will try to target areas where the economy is strong - technology, financial services, life sciences among others.

Riding a boom like the current irish economy is relatively easy. Is there room for a global player when the slowdown comes?

An advantage for DLA though is that the firm stretches across many different markets - meaning it's less exposed to the Irish market than many of its peers. Carthy says.

"One of the interesting things that happened in the last crash in Ireland is that while a lot of domestic activity - in terms of retail and property and everything else - took a severe hit, the multinational activity carried on," says Carthy.

"DLA as a business is globally hedged, we're in lots of different jurisdictions at a particular time and economies rise and fall. Of course, there is a cycle to these things. The current backdrop of the Irish economy thriving is very helpful, but it won't always be like that. So it is relevant, but it's not as relevant as might be the case if you're an Irish firm focusing on the Irish market."

Dubliner Carthy (47) studied law at Trinity and then went to Chicago to secure a master's degree, where he enjoyed the diverse, international community. He trained as a solicitor with Freshfields - one of the so-called 'magic circle' of top UK law firms - and then came back to William Fry, where he worked from 1999 to 2018.

His interest in the global business world is reflected by stints as chairman of the Ireland-India business association, and as director of the Ireland-Canada business association.

He's also vice president of the Irish Exporters Association and will be president of the organisation next year.

"I was always interested in the international side of things. I liked the challenge of it," Carthy says. He also says he always had an "entrepreneurial itch", which joining DLA has helped him to scratch.

"I liked the idea of disrupting. The Irish legal market has not changed in a very long time. And it has not changed significantly from when I started working in it about 20 years ago.

"The business market has. I wanted to build something. I like the idea of being involved in a global community. And the group of people that I joined I believe are very like-minded."

DLA might be one of the world's biggest law firms, but Carthy says it doesn't see itself as a "grand establishment figure". He says DLA is embracing innovation and change, at a time when the legal sector seems ripe for modernisation.

Over at McCann Fitzgerald, an Irish rival to Carthy's operation, artificial intelligence is being used to greatly reduce the time it takes to process documents. McCann is also branching into developing web apps to help companies assess their compliance with particular areas.

DLA itself has been working with Imperial College in London on a series of projects called 'Data Sparks', focusing on the area of data science.

One project has the potential to be useful when it comes to mergers and acquisitions advice, by trying to see whether there are any links between a deal's characteristics and its outcome.

The big question, of course, is whether this will lead to fewer people being employed by law firms in the future.

"I'm not sure that's the case," Carthy says. "People will operate differently. If you look at technology's effect on industries across the board, and law would be no different, it will have a major effect on what we do. Sometimes technology can be an enabler."

Perhaps the answer might be that the same or more people will be employed by law firms, but they'll just be doing different things. DLA is exploring whether using technology can drive into new services in areas like data or consultancy.

He thinks many Irish services providers have been slow to adapt, adding that clients are telling the firm that they want to see more of the benefits of innovation in the services that they get.

The logical extension of that might be that there is scope for DLA to acquire Irish rivals, but Carthy says that's not the plan - for now anyway.

Instead he wants to build up to about 20 partners and 100 professionals over the next three to four years, combining the best local talent with access to DLA's large pool. Brexit isn't a major factor in the company's thinking, says Carthy. Setting up here wasn't a Brexit pivot - the company was already looking at the Irish market anyway.

"We'll be in the Irish market regardless of what happens with Brexit," says Carthy.

The question is what kind of Irish market will be left.

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