Posted on Tuesday 19 June 2012 by Ulster Business

Profile

Some of the partners at Pinsent Masons (l-r): Adrian Eakin, Paul McBride and Richard Gray

When law firm McGrigors merged with Pinsent Masons earlier this year, the decision was taken to unify the brand from day one, with no long, drawn out transition period.

The rationale was that Pinsent Masons was already well known and well respected in most of the sectors and geographical markets in which McGrigors operated.

That reputation extended to Northern Ireland too, according to Paul McBride, Head of Office in Belfast.

“Pinsent Masons is a strong global brand and it was a conscious decision taken at an early stage to move to that name on an immediate basis. Internationally and across the UK, particularly in infrastructure and construction, it is a very well recognised and respected brand,” he says.

McBride and his partner colleagues have of course been through the merger process before.

They were with long established Belfast firm L’Estrange & Brett when it merged with McGrigors in October 2009, a decision primarily driven by the desire to ensure it was well placed to help clients achieve success as they developed their businesses outside of Northern Ireland. The second driver was to open up additional specialist resource here.

“For too long we saw high end transactional and project work being handled outside Northern Ireland when we knew we had the skills and capabilities to do that from here,” says McBride.

McGrigors had three offices in Scotland, two in England, and one in Qatar, with a major focus on energy, infrastructure and financial services – all skills that were at the forefront in Northern Ireland.

The partners saw huge synergies with Pinsent Masons’ national offering as well as the potential to better serve the increasing demand from the McGrigors client base for international expertise.

Pinsent Masons has offices in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, as well as international offices in Qatar, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. Belfast is a string to its bow other UK firms don’t have.

“There’s no question that the UK, including Northern Ireland, has experienced internationalisation of its professional services market following clients as they move to emerging and growth economies. As we saw that client demand becoming real we made a very conscious decision to bulk up our international credentials. We were already doing that through the office in Qatar and a strong Russian and German desk in our London office,” says McBride. “The merger is giving us a greater window into the opportunities that are available nationally and internationally as part of the Pinsent Masons organisation, and to allow legal talent from Northern Ireland to participate in that.”

INFRASTRUCTURE

The same theme is picked up by Projects Partner Adrian Eakin, who now splits his time between Belfast and London.

As the pipeline of major infrastructure projects slowed in Northern Ireland the firm has been able to continue to service NI-based clients who are looking to Great Britain for work.

“Scotland has a big pipeline of schools, roads, hospitals and waste facilities. So we have followed the major NI contractors who we would traditionally work for here into Great Britain and in some cases internationally,” he says.

“Northern Ireland lags behind, particularly in contrast to the pipeline of work in Scotland – it has probably one of the biggest infrastructure pipelines in Europe. England has just announced £2.5bn worth of new schools and already has a huge pipeline in other sectors. There are a few projects here, but there is no transparent and structured pipeline, it is all ad hoc, so the contractors are going elsewhere.”

The company’s Belfast team have been exporting their services for some years to GB, getting on to panels for large scale infrastructure projects for clients such as Croydon Council.

“Because we are a lower cost jurisdiction we are able to cut our cloth a little bit to win a large volume of work. Having the Pinsent Masons name is also a tick in the box in terms of expertise and quality,” adds Eakin.

CORPORATE

Corporate partner Richard Gray has seen a similar trend in his team, with the firm responding to client needs, both in terms of services and geographical spread.

Some clients, such as SHS Group, are making acquisitions in England, while other GB-based clients are selling assets in Northern Ireland, for example Terra Firma’s sale of Phoenix’s supply business to Airtricity.

“As clients became more sophisticated and required more sophisticated legal services we needed to be able to offer those to them,” says Gray.

“One of the attractions of the new firm is to use those international contacts to help our clients go into new markets. We’ve been able to refer a number of local clients to our colleagues in the Gulf who are looking at joint ventures for example around the World Cup in Qatar,” he adds.

“We are also helping Queen’s University who are looking at a joint venture in China. We were able to introduce Queen’s to our Shanghai office and give them in-country advice – things we couldn’t have done previously.”

A team from Belfast recently worked on the disposal of Edinburgh Airport for BAA, one of the biggest corporate infrastructure transactions in the UK this year at over £800m – a deal built on a relationship formed when Ferrovial were selling Belfast City airport. Greater opportunities to export the firm’s expertise will also arise following the merger.

“The message that government is sending out is that any recovery will be export led. I don’t think in professional services we can be immune to that, we’ve got to follow our clients and follow the work.”

REAL ESTATE

The merger has also created one of the largest property teams in the UK, with 45 partners and around 350 property lawyers specialising in different areas of real estate.

While most of the property market remains challenged, Real Estate partner Ian Huddleston, says there continues to be activity where blue chip assets are concerned.

“These things are cyclical. We went through a period where a lot of investment funds left Northern Ireland and were selling off prime assets, and lots of property entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland were buying them up using debt. I think we are just on the tip of those being sold again, this time admittedly by the banks, but you’ll see institutional money coming back into the market,” he comments. “What I think is very much up in the air is what will happen to the secondary or tertiary assets. There isn’t yet a lot of appetite for that product.”

A diversity of work for clients in the public and private sectors has meant that though activity levels are down from the peak, the amount of work and turnover generated by the team hasn’t fallen.

Dialogue has begun to take place between banks who have accepted the need for a more realistic view on value and Huddleston expects to see investors club together to buy portfolios of properties released by NAMA in the near term.

“Another thing I’d like to see happen is the government bringing forward some initiatives to encourage regeneration. The Girdwood Barracks has now been announced. If we can encourage government to bring forward schemes of that type with an emphasis on redevelopment it will certainly help the construction industry, the real estate trade and ultimately lead to jobs and housing.”

WHAT NOW?

Having recruited consistently through the downturn at both newly qualified and senior level, Paul McBride sees opportunities for growth in Belfast.

He says Pinsent Masons is at an advanced stage of planning a move to new offices to take the firm to the next level. The increasing geographical spread of work will, he believes, increase the attractiveness of the firm to young lawyers who want to experience working in a fully fledged global legal business.

For clients, this is only positive with the ability to access further skills and expertise through Pinsent Masons.

“There’s an enormous amount of consistency and continuity in the people providing services, which is critical because it is a people business built on trust and confidence,” adds McBride.

“We’re part of a major international practice but we see ourselves as playing a very significant role in the Northern Ireland business community and in doing that offering real value.”

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