Posted on Wednesday 20 June 2012 by Ulster Business
But the team running A&L Goodbody in Belfast have set their bar higher.
“We’re very ambitious for the future and very confident in the quality of the people we have on board now. The quality of the work and the clients we act for will stand us in very good stead over the next few years,” says Peter Stafford, one of the founding partners of the A&L in Belfast.
“We’ll be looking to add to our staff levels pretty consistently over the next three to five years,” he adds.
In anticipation of that growth they are in the process of taking over a second floor at their central Belfast offices.
In light of the growth to date and plans for future growth of A&L in Belfast it has been decided to have a locally based Chairman. Peter Stafford will step up to this role this summer from his present role as Head of Belfast office.
His colleague Mark Thompson, currently head of the firm’s corporate division, will take over the Head of the Belfast office role.
As chairman, Stafford will continue driving the business externally and building its corporate client base, while Thompson will marshal the firm’s execution of its strategy.
“We think that will give us the management platform to be able to take the project through its next stage,” explains Stafford.
One of the major players in Dublin’s legal market, A&L Goodbody has always done business in Northern Ireland.
But in 2007 it decided that with many corporates doing business across the island of Ireland, it could better serve its core client base by being present in both jurisdictions. The idea had strong buy in from Dublin from day one.
The firm has substantial north-south connections amongst its management – including Managing Partner Julian Yarr, a native of Belfast.
But while A&L already had a good reputation in many of the world’s financial centres, they were conscious of the need to translate that international brand into a local context.
“It is a global brand that’s recognised internationally, but in the local market you have to team that brand with market leading individuals,” says Mark Thompson.
“One of the key strands in the early years of developing the office was putting together a team of top quality individuals in all areas, which we’ve now done.”
Thompson believes all of A&L’s partners are “at the top of their game” with lawyers such as Brendan Fox in litigation and dispute resolution; Michael Neill in restructuring and insolvency; Gareth Walls in employment and benefits, and Louise Bailey and Judith Brown in banking and financial services recognised as such by Chambers and the Legal 500.
This is evident from some of the work that the Belfast partner team have undertaken recently:
• Brendan Fox has been advising Northern Ireland Water;
• Michael Neill led the Northern Irish work on the Quinn Group restructuring;
• Thompson has advised UTV on the renegotiation of the Channel 3 networking arrangements with ITV and STV;
• Stafford has advised Invest Northern Ireland in relation to all areas of company and commercial law;
• Gareth Walls has advised British Airways on complex employment matters;
• Louise Bailey and Judith Brown continue to advise all of the leading lending institutions on the ongoing issues emerging from the economic downturn.
It is all complex, top end work for major entities in the local economy.
The firm recently appointed three new partners which brings its total in Belfast to 10.
Those new partners – Alastair Keith in Corporate, Ciaran McAlinney in Banking, and Mark Blair in Commercial Property – have a big role to play in propelling the business forward, says Stafford.
“We’ve got a really good senior team now and market leading individuals in all practice areas we want to be working in. A lot of our job over the next few years is making sure each of those individuals has good resource coming through. That’s why we’re investing in growing the team,” he says.
A&L has retained all of its trainees in Belfast qualifying in September, has doubled its trainee intake for this September and continues to develop people at all stages of their careers to ensure the teams around all its partners are strong.
Those coming into the legal profession today are, Stafford and Thompson believe, starting out at a time when the role of lawyers is changing.
No longer just providing a set service, Stafford describes the firm as “business advisers to Corporate NI,” which means there’s a need for greater understanding of exactly what issues clients are facing in order to offer the best solutions.
“The way that the economy has gone over the past five years, flexibility and a little bit of dynamism – being able to look at your market, see where it’s moving to and adjust – is essential. That wouldn’t necessarily have been the hallmark of lawyers in times past. If you’re genuinely close to your clients and they are having to adapt, you have to adapt,” he explains.
Mark Thompson adds that part of the reason for establishing the firm’s Belfast office was to provide a level of service across the firm which was synonymous with A&L Goodbody.
“In the local market you might have gone to a particular individual for a particular type of work rather than being sure that there was quality right across the various departments at a given firm. As the economy develops and the private sector develops, the level of service, sophistication and integration of our business is increasingly necessary,” he adds.
“It is a business relationship where we understand what our clients are doing week in week out, and you can identify and anticipate the issues that are going to come up.”
The advice the firm is giving now is very different to five years ago, says Peter Stafford.
Although a lack of liquidity means there is reduced activity in mid-market mergers and acquisitions, the firm continues to see numerous clients seeking its advice for small business investments, M&A and the big international deals.
In recent months it has worked on UTV’s acquisition of social media agency Simply Zesty and Body Shop’s buyback of its NI franchise stores, among others.
It also continues to act for private equity and venture capital investors looking to invest in good Northern Ireland companies, and advised Clarendon Fund Managers in one of its first Co-Investment Fund deals with MSO Cleland.
Advice also now involves critical advisory work – looking at commercial terms and contracts or advising on distressed assets and reconstructions, to help clients improve their business.
A&L is busy in sectors such as food and drink, energy and renewables, new media, and healthcare.
In the past 12 months A&L Goodbody has increased staff at its New York office, opened a Palo Alto office and effectively doubled the size of its London office.
Having that reach has undoubtedly helped the firm win larger corporate M&A business from the UK and Europe, says Stafford.
“If you’re a partner in a magic circle law firm or investment bank sitting in London and you’ve got an Irish deal on your desk – to some extent it doesn’t matter if it is Cork or Coleraine – if you’re looking for a law firm, it means A&L Goodbody is at the forefront of people’s minds.”
Mark Thompson agrees the integrated nature of the firm’s offering perhaps sets it apart from some of its competitors in Northern Ireland.
“Each firm has its own culture and personality, and I think one of the defining things about A&L Goodbody is teamwork and staff working together on projects. One of the pieces of work that kept us heavily engaged last year was the restructuring of the Quinn Group. It was extremely complex, the largest corporate closing in Irish history and we had people in our Belfast and Dublin offices working hand in glove on that,” he notes.
The firm won Chambers Europe’s Irish law firm of the year last month and the Belfast office was fully engaged in the work judged for the award.
“We wouldn’t perceive that there’s any difference in the quality of an A&L lawyer sitting in Belfast or Dublin or New York or London. The firm has an international reputation and anyone who uses us gets that service,” adds Stafford.
Acknowledging that many of the local businesses who are thriving are focused on winning business internationally, the firm has also co-sponsored in the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce’s Export First initiative – which provides advice to aspiring and existing export businesses looking to make inroads into Great Britain, Europe and beyond.
It is also into the second cycle of its China programme, where it is partnering with leading Chinese law firms to take interns for six months to give them exposure to Western markets.
“The rationale is that they are emerging as a leading economic player globally and will no doubt be doing business on the island at some point. Our aspiration is that when that is happening and they need local lawyers one of them will pick up the phone to us because they have that connection,” says Thompson.
A&L has clients from across the business community but Stafford identifies some common elements in the work that comes the firm’s way.
“If there’s a theme to some of the work we’re getting it is difficult, hard, complex transactions for which you need the legal brains engaged to come up with a workable solution. Since the economic environment has changed, every problem is a new problem which you don’t have a solution on the shelf for,” he says.
“Part of the challenge for us all is working out what the new normal is. Being content to look forward six or nine months pragmatically – that sort of flexible, dynamic approach will have to be part of what everybody does in the next little while,” he adds.
“As corporate NI becomes more sophisticated they are looking for a more sophisticated legal services solution, and that’s what A&L Goodbody is best positioned to do.”
HOW THE INDUSTRY RATES A&L
‘The quality of service provided by the team at A&L Goodbody Northern Ireland is “of the highest standard in the marketplace.”’
‘A&L Goodbody Northern Ireland’s service is nothing short of fantastic. It is thorough, responsive and professional.’
‘A&L Goodbody Northern Ireland “were very responsive and accessible even towards the end of the deal when it got really intense” and “has a great understanding of our business and helps us find the solutions we are looking for.” ’
‘With offices in Belfast and Dublin, A&L Goodbody is able to provide a joined-up and efficient service to its clients.’