Posted on Wednesday 4 August 2010 byUlster Business
Northern Ireland’s corporate legal expertise is now amongst the best in the world. Ulster Business spoke to Alan Taylor and Alan Bissett of Arthur Cox to hear how the Belfast firm is giving London’s best a run for their money.
The local corporate law sector is changing. Gone are the days when a local law firm would play second fiddle to one of the London-based ‘magic circle’ firms when a major merger or acquisition was on the table in Northern Ireland. Nowadays, the expertise and experience to handle such a deal and other forms of corporate law can be found within these shores and indeed, it’s now expected by clients.
That’s not to dismiss the London firms altogether as it was within the capital’s legal system that many of the current crop of Northern Ireland lawyers cut their teeth and it continues to supply a rich crop of returning ex-pats. But using this experience and that gained from handling hefty local deals over the last few years has boosted the quality and breadth of legal advice and counsel here.
The Corporate/Commercial Group at Arthur Cox in Belfast is a case in point.
Based around a backbone of six partners and 12 associates, it covers all aspects of corporate and commercial law and has built up such a strong reputation in the past few years that clients rarely think of looking across the Irish Sea for legal advice.
“We’re picking up a lot of business that would have normally gone straight to London or Dublin,” Alan Taylor, Managing Partner at Arthur Cox’s Belfast office said in an interview with Ulster Business. “It’s higher grade legal work but we’re more than capable of dealing with it.”
Alan Bissett, who heads up the Corporate/Commercial Group at Arthur Cox agrees and uses the example of privatisation in the local electricity market as an example of the changing times.
“When the electricity market was privatised in 1992, the majority of the legal work went to London as a matter of course,” he said. “But the expertise has developed significantly since then and they now have full confidence to come to us as the first port of call.”
In fact, local firms now have an advantage.
“We have now got 18 years of expertise of the NI energy sector under our belts and the London guys would struggle to compete with this,” he said.
This advantage is all well and good but in the current chastened economic times, activity in the corporate law sector has dwindled. Not so at Arthur Cox.
“The market has contracted a bit in terms of the amount of work out there but our market share has increased hugely so we’re very busy,” Alan Taylor said. “We’re providing good service and are getting a lot of business, including through word of mouth from existing clients.”
The firm’s involvement in some high profile work over the last couple of years has certainly boosted its brand.
“Arthur Cox has pulled away from the pack because of its work with the Irish government on the reorganisation of the financial services sector (through the National Asset Management Agency, or NAMA, where Arthur Cox helped implement the legal framework for the government agency),” he said. “That propelled the firm on to the international stage and has brought us to the table with some of the big players in Europe.”
This means Arthur Cox’s lawyers have their hands full at a relatively slow time in the legal world.
Clients include AES Kilroot, Dunbia, Kingspan, Aer Lingus, the New York Stock Exchange and Eircom on the private sector side alongside a number of clients from right across the public sector.
“We represent good blue chip clients, a number of which have an acquisitive nature,” Alan Bissett said. “Although the mergers and acquisition market is quiet at the moment, it’s a good time for cash rich clients to buy businesses at the right price.
“If you can get those types of clients and look after them then they generate work going forward. They can place all their legal services with one firm and concentrate on one relationship knowing we have the breadth of expertise to cover everything.”
For example, few, if any, local firms offer a full-time competition law specialist. In this case, Arthur Cox’s Dublin office expertise comes into play.
“For competition law I can call on one of my colleagues on the team in Dublin who happens to be from the north and is happy to get involved,” Alan Bissett said. “In fact, it means that for this, and in other cases, we can give a view from both the NI and Irish legal points of view.”
Looking forward, the team hopes to maintain a high level of service.
“We’ve made the effort to get the clients in the door and we have to be able to meet that expectation. We can achieve this by offering the London-type service at a Belfast rate.”