Business Irish

Monday 11 December 2017

Transatlantic crossing: law firm chief is looking beyond borders to meet global demand

Alan Murphy, managing partner for Eversheds Sutherland Ireland, tells Gavin McLoughlin about his strategy for taking new opportunities

Alan Murphy Picture: David Conachy
Alan Murphy Picture: David Conachy
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

The world is a much more uncertain place than it was this time last year. For Alan Murphy, it is a time of opportunity. Murphy (46) is managing partner for Ireland of law firm Eversheds Sutherland - a newborn business sprung from a merger of British firm Eversheds and American firm Sutherlands Asbill & Brennan.

Soft-spoken by lawyers' standards, Murphy sees the deal as the chance to provide multinational clients with local services in multiple jurisdictions.

"With the market becoming more and more internationalised, clients have needs now well beyond the jurisdictions in which they're present.

"For example, there's a number of Irish plcs which now don't headquarter in Ireland any more, and the majority of their businesses are not even European but global. The international legal market needs to follow that.

"It isn't really enough to say 'well I can service your needs within the borders of this country'. You need to be able to offer a client a multi-jurisdictional offering, across multiple practice areas, whether it's reviews of HR contracts, or reviews of commercial contracts, or data privacy advice across 20 different jurisdictions.

"Clients are increasingly demanding that, so the combination in the US gives us that added ability to provide top-quality premium advice across the United States."

Monaghan man Murphy is in his third term as managing partner. He might never have been a lawyer at all, saying that his parents "don't have a huge amount of time for the law". He did his Leaving Cert at 16 and then went to study arts in Queen's University in Belfast. But the law still appealed to him and after moving to Dublin for a conversion course he became a solicitor.

"I had a very analytical mind, so I liked the analysis, I liked the detail. I suppose in a sense I liked the purity of the actual law, but then having to implement that into practice requires a commerciality, so that aspect of it has always appealed to me.

"I never really thought about the barrister piece, it wasn't really in my mindset at the time. Parts of it I think I would have liked and been good at but it was never in my sights."

Something that is in his sights is the potential for growth sparked by the current global uncertainty. Murphy says tax, FDI, and financial services regulation are among the areas Eversheds Sutherland's Irish office will be targeting.

At the end of last year - before the merger with Sutherland - Eversheds was ranked ninth-biggest law firm in Ireland by number of solicitors employed, according to Law Society statistics.

It employs 260 people here overall but Murphy won't say what he'd like that number to become, saying it will be driven by client needs.

The business has been growing by 15pc a year over the last four years and the strategy is to continue that until 2020. Split across two buildings in Dublin, the firm is on the hunt for a new Irish headquarters in the range of 60,000-70,000 sq ft.

It's a time of change for Eversheds Sutherland and indeed for lawyers in general. Murphy says the profession has transformed since he first qualified.

"The legal market has become much more internationalised over the last 10 years ... what's required of a lawyer has changed, you need now to be a leader, you need now to be someone who is interested in team-building, in growing a business and developing a client base.

"So it's become much more interactive than it was when I would have qualified first - and it'll become much more interactive still," says Murphy.

Developments in technology are having a major impact too. The firm has launched a virtual document-signing programme that allows for things to be signed by people on the move. It's also built IT systems allowing clients to log in and monitor the progress of cases.

All this is part of the effort to make Eversheds Sutherland stand out from the crowd.

But what really matters in law is the quality of the service a firm provides.

Tax is going to be a major area of focus for the firm in the aftermath of the merger, with the election of Donald Trump in the US creating major uncertainty about the future tax treatment of multinationals with Irish bases.

"Won't there be an even greater need for tax advice now? Because obviously what may have been considered certain is no longer certain and what we may have taken for granted a year ago, we now don't.

"There'll be a lot of need for specialist tax advisers who know what they're talking about and we'll be able to do that," Murphy, who is also chairman of Eversheds International, says.

"A quarter of Sutherland in the States is tax attorneys. They're one of the premium tax attorney firms in the United States, and we're building our tax offering here.

"We're bringing in some very senior people from other law firms. I can't tell you who they are yet because they're still working out their notice periods.

"But they are FDI specialists, they have specialised in the re-orgs of multinationals, so they will fit very well," Murphy says.

After his interview, he's flying to Washington in part to explore further tax opportunities in the US.

The company will also look to get a slice of the action from what has been christened "Britflux" - the relocation to Ireland of financial services firms for whom EU membership is important.

It has hired Ciaran Walker, formerly deputy head of the enforcement division at the Central Bank of Ireland, as a consultant - he's giving a presentation to clients on the morning Murphy and I meet.

"We have a division of Eversheds, as it was called then in the UK, called Eversheds Consulting - which is akin to what the accountancy firms do in terms of advisory. It's not in some instances pure legal advice, it's more on the regulatory side ... I think that's a big set of needs.

"As to what's going to happen around Brexit, it's anybody's guess. We'll see where [the "Britflux] gets us."

In the business community, lawyers are typically the ones who get blamed when a business project faces a delay. Murphy acknowledges the perception exists.

"We're advisers. We're not the commercial people. So the advisers are always the people who delay a project or are seen to delay a project. Obviously I don't believe that they do," he says.

"But for every person you'll hear say 'bloody lawyers', you probably will hear someone who will say 'do you know what, I know somebody who got me out of a scrape'. But they don't talk about it the way the 'bloody lawyer' people talk about it.

"Perceptions are perceptions - you've just got to show that they're wrong don't you? There's no point getting excited about perceptions."

Murphy says he's a firm believer in taking the opportunities.

He never set out to be a managing partner - which requires a whole other set of skills on top of being a legal practitioner.

"I really enjoyed being a full-time practitioner. I really liked the client work, the interaction, working with my team and building it up. So no, I didn't set off to be managing partner, but at the time, the powers that be thought that I was the best man for the job, and I was interested in it."

One of his priorities is to focus on employees' wellbeing. Murphy himself is a practitioner of 'mindfulness'.

"We have this habit of rushing through everything we do, so rushing through a meal, rushing through a meeting.

"I do think that to take a step back and actually concentrate on the present and appreciate the present, and appreciate the day you're having is hugely important," he says.

"I don't think you can ever be too mindful. I think actually it's linked to resilience because you can't keep on working at the same rate in the same way for 30 years of your life if you're going too work hard.

"So you do need to be resilient but I think part of resilience is mindfulness.

"I fundamentally believe that you take every opportunity that comes at you, that would be a core belief I have in life. You don't shy away from an opportunity that comes your way.

"Obviously, if I was asked to play rugby for Ireland I might not find myself on the rugby pitch but I think you embrace every opportunity that comes your way and you see where it goes. Because you regret it if you don't."

He believes there's lots of opportunity in the Irish market.

"It's in some ways quite a unique market because it has a lot of multinational presence, it has the aviation-financing piece, and it also has the funds piece. So it's an interesting market from a legal perspective.

"It's a very sophisticated market from a legal perspective in terms of services and the level and quality of advice that needs to be provided.

"It's competitive but I would believe that if you're the right competitor, you'll always do very well, so I don't think it's crowded to the extent that there are too many good people in it.

"There's lots of opportunity in the Irish market for the right provider. Now the trick is to be the right provider.

"It's about being relevant to your client and adding value and giving good advice and helping your client. That's what it's about fundamentally."

'My main preoccupation is playing Cluedo'

In my spare time I ...

My main preoccupation at the moment is playing Cluedo with my eight-year-old, who beats me hands down nearly every time. But apart from that, I read a lot, and swim.

The book I'm reading is ...

"I'm reading one by a guy called Ian McGuire called The North Water. It's about whalers and set in the 1850s. It's a bit gruesome in parts but it's very interesting, and very well written.

My music taste is ...

"I'm tone deaf... Leonard Cohen would be my favourite musician. I like him a lot, but musically I'm a complete savage.

The best piece of business advice I've received is ...

"It was about the need to recalibrate and adjust to the particular job or task that faces you and the ability to look forward and to strategise ... so while something might not necessarily look like the right decision on the particular day, will it be the right decision in 10 years' time?

Sunday Indo Business

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