Friday 23 February 2018

Murphy's Law - from trainee to Crash survivor to the top of the legal game

The pin-stripped world of Dublin's corporate law firms can feel a little bit too self contained for comfort, but Evershed's Alan Murphy's career has been anything but parochial, says Donal O'Donovan

‘Like any business, a law firm is a business. They were challenging times. Opportunities arose out of those challenging times,’ says Alan Murphy
‘Like any business, a law firm is a business. They were challenging times. Opportunities arose out of those challenging times,’ says Alan Murphy
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

The legal business in Dublin can feel like a very small parish - stretching no further than the length of the quays - from the Four Courts east to "Google Docks," which despite the nickname is home to as many solicitors' firms as it is tech giants.

At first blush Eversheds' Irish managing partner, Alan Murphy, comes across as the quintessential inhabitant of that version of legal Dublin.

But Murphy's background and his current range is broader than the parochial, if rarified, boardrooms of the city centre.

If his career has a common thread it is movement: he started out as a legal trainee in a small town in Sligo, and is now one of the country's most internationally focused lawyers.

We're meeting to discuss Eversheds' business here. The former O'Donnell Sweeney Solicitors is now the Irish branch of a global law firm, but it was heavily exposed to property and construction when the crash hit.

As Murphy tells it now, it's a recovery story. Revenues at Eversheds in Ireland will beat boom levels this year, staff numbers are at highest ever - forcing the firm to take extra space at offices close to the its Earlsfort Terrace headquarters - and hiring will continue into next year.

It's a strong result for a firm that, like Murphy, himself a real estate lawyer, was strongly associated with land and the building trade before the crash.

Murphy's style is confident but low key.

He takes his time responding to questions, considering his answers and, unlike many high-fliers of his generation - he is in his mid 40s - he eschews jargon to reply in clear, plain English.

That may be because Murphy, who qualified as a solicitor in 1995, spends a lot of time abroad.

As chairman of Eversheds International, he also helps co-ordinate a far-flung network of Eversheds international offices, not just the business here. Like the managing partner role in Dublin, its an elected position, but as chairman Murphy leads an executive drawn from management in 15 countries and sit on Eversheds' global leadership team.

But plain speaking may be a result of his own background, Murphy has lived and worked all over the country - the Monaghan native gained an Arts degree at Queens University in Belfast, studied law initially at the old College of Commerce in Rathmines, and trained and worked in Sligo and then Wexford before coming to work in Dublin.

For a lot of Dublin lawyers the legal ladder starts at UCD or Trinity and rises seamlessly through Blackhall Place and often a single city centre law firm. It was more of a career stairs than a career ladder, Murphy agrees.

"I did work through the career thing, but I did it in a slightly different way."

Crossing the border to go to Queen's was a family tradition. The son of a vet and a teacher, Murphy is the third generation in his family to attend the Belfast college.

His degree was in English and History, but the ambition was always to practise law. After Queens, the Troubles prompted him to move on. Though this year's opening of the second Eversheds Ireland office, in Belfast, reconnected him to the city.

"This was in 1990 so I decided to come south and do law in the south. I did a conversion course at what was then the College of Commerce in Rathmines," he explains.

Then he was back on the road, to Ballymote in Sligo, where he was apprenticed to now judge Keenan Johnson, whom he speaks of with huge respect.

"I did my traineeship, because we have to call them traineeships now, in Balymote in Co Sligo, my master - you don't call them that any more - was Keenan Johnson. I did a general traineeship - it was a really good, very broad well grounded. It gave me a great base," he explains.

In Ballymote it was all hands on deck and Murphy was thrown into meaningful work straight away. "That kind of experience is fantastic to get."

When he qualified jobs were scare. One came up in Wexford at John A Sinnott.

"In Wexford, coming from Sligo and Monaghan, I thought I'd landed in God's own country. In Sligo land was £500 an acre; Wexford it was already a couple of grand an acre."

Murphy began to specialise in real estate, and after marrying in 1998 headed for Dublin - initially with AC Ford. The lure of a larger firm, eventually brought him to O'Donnell Sweeney - now Eversheds - in 2000.

Property was the place to be over the next seven years, and Murphy and O'Donnell Sweeney thrived - at the height of the boom 60pc of its business was property linked.

By the time it all crashed Murphy was a senior partner at in the firm, which was being integrated into the wider Eversheds network globally and in 2008 his fellow partners in Dublin elected him managing partner of the Irish business.

With fees plunging and activity grinding to a halt did it not feel like a bit of a poisoned chalice, I ask?

"It was a very difficult time to become managing partner, it was challenging," he concedes. But, looking back from today's strong growth rates, he says the firm did what it had to in order to survive, both cutting job numbers early and going after alternative business .

Striking a balancing between cutting back and maintaining services was key, he says.

"Like any business, a law firm is a business. They were challenging times. Opportunities arose out of those challenging times - to refocus, to think about what we needed to do and to make every effort we could to maintain the best of what we had," he says.

"I think that is the primary challenge of difficult times - to retain the best of what you have and to move forward. The one thing you don't do in recessionary times is close your eyes and just hope that it is going to end, you can't do that."

Necessity forced the firm to diversify into areas including intellectual property, data privacy and more corporate services.

But the crash also meant job losses.

"We were one of the first firms to come out and say, 'look unfortunately we need to take some action' (job cuts)," he says.

One area that was not cut was training, Eversheds continued to take in trainee solicitors through the crash, a relatively expensive decision at the time, but one that means Murphy is not desperately casting around for junior associates now that business has picked up - unlike some rivals.

Keen to promote the scheme Murphy points out that Evershed trainees can end up spending part of their time based in one of the firm's other international offices, including Paris or Madrid.

Having weathered the storm, the agenda is now on growth. Revenues are up 15pc over the last two years and projected to increase by 20pc this year.

But isn't that driven by the wider economy, I wonder?

"I don't think you can rely on economic growth for growth in your business, I think you have to be well positioned and it ultimately always is about what value you bring for your clients," Murphy says.

As Murphy tells it the tie-in to Eversheds internationally means the firm here can already tap into international expertise as required.

He cites an example.

"I remember being in Donegal and getting a call from Cian O'Connor (the Olympic showjumper), and Cian said 'look, I'm up in front of an Olympic committee tomorrow, Saturday, I need representation'.

"Well we have a sports equine tribunal specialist in London. So I was able to make a call to London from Donegal and had representation for him the next day, and he was successful he was able to compete."

The in-house expert was a barrister, something that until the new Legal Services Bill, would never be allowed in Ireland.

Murphy is in favour of the Bill generally and Eversheds' pricing model has already made the shift to charging fixed fees rather than by-the-hour for work, but he is slightly lukewarm when it comes to Eversheds taking on its own team of barristers here.

"I'm not averse to it (barristers in-house) but the Law Library does bring value, so the challenge is that we in Eversheds would have to bring equal value," he explains.

On the subject of value, he's keen for greater transparency around State contracts, not surprising for the head of a firm that is a relative outsider.

Eversheds' clients already include State agencies, along with multinationals and domestic SMEs and corporates, though clearly Murphy would like to see more.

"Is it the most lucrative work? I'm not sure that it is, I'm not sure that it should be?

"It is good quality work, and good lawyers like to do good quality work. It is an important area of practice," he says.

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