Wednesday 12 December 2018

'Getting up early to get there first is still the guiding principle in my life' - meet veteran solicitor Joe Sweeney

Interview: Joe Sweeney

Joe Sweeney
Joe Sweeney

Veteran solicitor Joe Sweeney has advised some of the country's biggest and longest-established family firms not so much down the years, but through the years. He retired from what was Eversheds O'Donnell Sweeney in 2009 after a brush with ill health, but after a period as a consultant and adviser, returned to legal practice in 2011, setting up J R Sweeney & Co.

What's now Eversheds Ireland is among the biggest firms in the country, and through its affiliation to London-based Eversheds, has global reach.

With nine staff, Ballsbridge-based J R Sweeney & Co is a much smaller affair, but Sweeney says it's the right size to serve a client roster who in some cases he's worked with through four decades and multiple generations.

"You are giving a very different service than generally what large law firms would give, a very personalised service.

"When it comes to a law firm - the same rules apply whether you are small, medium, or large - the primary thing is to invest in top-class people to work with you. You must invest in the practice - it's the business you know best of all - rather than in invest in outside businesses and, above all, look after the client."

Operating successfully as a small firm with high-level clients means being realistic about the service that can be provided.

"It is important for smaller law firms to recognise limitations. You can only provide a limited range of services," he says.

"You won't have the numbers, as a small-to-medium law firm, to provide all of the specialised services which big firms generally do, but the bigger firms will always be glad to join with you in a significant transactions," he says.

He gives the example of large merger or acquisition work that requires complex tax or intellectual property work that can be passed out to firms with those specialisations.

They key is knowing the client and their firm well enough to take over that role for them, he says, although he adds that it also means extensive investment in technology in order to be able to match the level of speed and documentation required at the top of the industry.

"A private individual who owns a large business and who's focused on a big deal has to spend their time managing that deal overall - but they can rely on a trusted lawyer to drive the service team supporting them."

That's not duplication - it should mean greater efficiency, he reckons.

"Someone who knows the entrepreneur and their business intimately can save the client an awful lot of grief - you do that by knowing your client and knowing your business and providing solid, independent advice," he says.

It's a point delivered with enthusiasm, but he's realistic that lots of people regard solicitors as, at best, a necessary evil.

"People generally have a great regard for their own solicitor, they don't generally appreciate lawyers on the whole."

The Galway man is coy about naming clients - but he's been a director of a number of what are now substantial firms as they've grown, including James Murphy's Lifes2Good, which last year sold its Viviscal hair roster for €150m, as well as of the sports chain Elverys.

Sweeney and his long time legal partner Rory O'Donnell had merged their firms in the mid-1990s and went onto build up what is now a major legal firm.

Having done that, and stepped back from business in his 60s, setting up a practice again from scratch wasn't Sweeney's original plan.

"Between 2006 and 2008 I had stages two and three of melanoma and decided to change pace, become a consultant, but that wasn't necessarily... it didn't turn out to be a great idea because you were dragged back into the firm, or back into doing the same job, with the same pressures and everything," he says.

"In the end I just decided it was more practical to develop a smaller law firm but focused purely on the private client and owner-managed segment." Those Irish-owned, often family-controlled business had always been Sweeney's own focus, he says.

The office is in Dublin's leafy Ballsbridge, a stone's throw from the RDS, where some of his clients will be up to see the horses this week. Is it a local clientele I ask - this being where a lot of Ireland's wealth ends up?

He chuckles at the suggestion.

"It's across the country. We'd have a lot of clients who have been with me for upwards of 40 years," he says.

Over that time, Sweeney's own base shifted, from a practice in Limerick city to Dublin in the late 1980s - later forming the partnership with O'Donnell and subsequently, London-based legal giant Eversheds.

The initial move from Limerick was to follow clients. A clutch of businesses from the region had expanded into the capital and found it becoming the greater part of their businesses.

Rather than see some of his best clients outgrow him, Sweeney expanded alongside them, staying with them in some cases as their business went national and international.

"When we opened the office in Dublin in 1987 we found technology was the huge driver,

"We had the first Wang OIS in a law practice in Ireland and a dedicated phone line between Limerick and Dublin, which gave us a great advantage."

The practice subsequently built up scale through the merger to form O'Donnell-Sweeney.

"Rory's practice was very similar, it was private client and owner-managed business focused," he says.

The Eversheds connection was different, with the Irish business striking a franchise agreement, through personal connections between the parters.

"I had a great shooting friend - Cornelius Medvei - he was senior partner of Eversheds in London and this suggestion came about between us, that we might take a franchise, which I thought was a very good idea at the time and that's where it developed from there."

Is it awkward, I wonder, to service clients over a long period through a variety of entities? "It's not awkward for them and it's not awkward for me," he says simply.

"I decided to go back into private practice, concentrating on private clients and owner-managed businesses because they have particular needs," he says.

"At times they can be well serviced by the big law firms, but I do really believe that if private clients and owner-managed businesses have a good solicitor - a trusted lawyer and a trusted accountant - it can be very valuable."

He has a particular focus on the critical junctures for a business - whether to buy or sell, and potentially most difficult of all, passing control through generations. For founding entrepreneurs, that mix of family and business dynamics creates big challenges, which Sweeney has seen play out many times through the years.

The reality can very tough at a human level.

"The skills of the entrepreneur may not pass to the next generations. The first question is to decide whether the family are capable of running the business.

"There are some families where some, but not all members, could continue the business and there are some families where no member can continue the business, and then it is wise to sell the business," he says.

If passing a business from the founders to their own children is tough, successfully handing on a family business through succeeding generations is even trickier.

"It is a very rare family business that will go through two generations," he says. If it does, that usually means it ends up going to one side of a family," he says.

"I think the benefit of 40-odd years of practice is I have seen many businesses face those challenges."

The other big challenge he sees clients facing over the past decade is finance - the ratcheting up of debt levels before the crash, and the subsequent scramble to get out from under it.

Even now, with the crash over and a recovery apparently in full swing, Sweeney thinks the banking system remains dysfunctional, and fears in particular the lack of dedicated, relationship-based, lenders to the commercial sector.

"We don't have merchant banks, or industrial banks. We could badly do with an ICC (the former Industrial Credit Corporation) in business," he says.

The main banks, he says have become too obsessed by security, having massively pulled away from business lending during the crash.

As someone whose focus is on businesses over the long-term, Sweeney doesn't see the new class of lending funds as a credible alternative.

"The venture funds are geared to secured lending - they lend, but they cherry pick assets and lend against them. It would concern me because of the rates they are charging - anywhere between 8pc and 12pc interest rates on short-term loans. They are providing a much-needed service, but eventually they will have to be replaced by ordinary banking firms - and there is a huge shortage of ordinary banking," he says.

Property, including dealing with the US private equity funds that have bought loans secured on it, remains a huge focus for domestic firms, he says.

"What you are finding is that a lot of businesses and individuals are buying back assets from the vulture funds, but with high-rate money.

"On the plus side they are getting the huge debt right down, if the assets are good quality you can turn them around and thus exit the expensive borrowings."

While the debt costs remain high, that's not producing business wealth, but its helping some firms recover from the aftermath of the financial crisis, he says.

More broadly, he sees the economy, and Dublin in particular, in recovery.

"It is certainly changed times. Property values have come back and it is making people feel much more secure in their homes and in their investments."

Where does that leave his own firm?

"At 67, I'm fortunate in having two younger partners and a young team and I'm enjoying watching the business grow. There's ambition for the business. Growing up in Athenry, I learned an expression: 'You've got to get up early to get there before the Loughrea lads'.

"This was in shooting terms but that principle has, and still does, guide my life."

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