Posted on Wednesday 16 November 2011 by Ulster Business

The art of law

Ulster Business caught up with Carson McDowell’s new Managing Partner Michael Johnston to find out about his approach to business and his plans for growth in a competitive legal market

Michael Johnston is pictured at the Ulster Museum in front of a portrait of singer Brian Kennedy by local artist Colin Davidson

Michael Johnston is not your stereotypical aggressive corporate lawyer with a bombastic boardroom style.

Previously head of Belfast-based law firm Carson McDowell’s corporate and commercial team, Johnston took over as Managing Partner of the firm in August.

Softly spoken and with a calm, reassuring manner, he would prefer Carson McDowell to be known for its integrity and fair approach to business.

“I hope that our clients and colleagues would say that when dealing with people we are fair to everybody. Obviously you push your own client’s point of view – that is a given – but not to the point where it is totally unreasonable or unworkable,” he told Ulster Business.

“Sometimes people mistake trying to be fair for softness, but usually they realise that’s not the case and get the point very quickly when you make it to them. We try to treat both colleagues and other lawyers in the same way,” he adds.

Described by the Legal 500 as “commercial and trustworthy” Johnston is keen that the traits he values such as integrity and respect permeate down to the lawyers and other staff within the firm. Northern Ireland is, he believes, too small a place for lawyers to just steamroller opposing parties.

“I have been on the corporate finance side of many deals spanning twenty five years plus and I have seen the “car crash” when one party comes out of a deal feeling aggrieved or done over. Generally the result will be a court case or if it is a long term relationship it will not work. To me getting the right deal done in the right way is the key,” he explains.

“I would like Carson McDowell to be known as a firm that is fair to its clients and its employees, but also generally that there should be a feeling that if you are dealing with Carson McDowell you are not going to be ripped off. If there are two points of view to take, yes, we will always push our client’s side. But there is often a point which you may not be able to go beyond if the deal is to work out.”

Carson McDowell justifiably claims to be Northern Ireland’s largest commercial law firm. It has more lawyers working across a wider range of disciplines than any other law firm in the province – with 59 lawyers and over 100 staff.
It also advises more than a third of the companies listed in Ulster Business’s list of Northern Ireland’s Top 100 companies, as well as many leading public institutions and private individuals.

In the past year alone it has been appointed to advise NAMA, Royal Mail Group, Bord Gais, NIE and Translink, while also working hard to retain its core clients in what is an increasingly competitive market.


Johnston explains that in the current economic climate clients are scrutinising what they get from professional service providers, which for law firms means they have to demonstrate that they are adding value.

“The days are gone when lawyers can just sit and wait for clients to walk in through the door. This suits us as we have always sought to be very proactive in terms of spending time with our own clients and getting to know their business, their strategies and becoming much more a part of their advisory team,” he says.

“What I would really like for Carson McDowell is that if there are any major decisions being taken in Top 100 companies that we are part of that decision-making process. We’re there when the strategy is being formed, not being brought in just to document it,” he adds.

A closer relationship means lawyers get to know a client’s organisation, its business plan, its objectives, and can engage in mutually beneficial arrangements such as training or sending lawyers on secondment to clients, allowing them to get a better picture of the issues on which the client most needs legal advice.

While he agrees there is a legitimate point at which firms have to reduce prices in line with the market, Carson McDowell isn’t keen to follow some other firms who he believes are effectively buying market share by offering unsustainable prices to win business and subsidising those contracts with higher fees to other clients.

“If someone is determined to buy market share then it is very difficult to respond other than by reducing your own rates, but that is not always in the client’s interest in that it may become unsustainable for the right level of lawyer to do their work. We don’t want to sacrifice our reputation for a quality service, so what that means for firms like ours is that we have to look very carefully at what tenders we are going in for and what type of work you are structuring the firm to do because a huge amount of time can be wasted going for a tender or client which we are simply not going to win because someone is determined to buy that piece of work,” comments Johnston.

The sophistication of the purchaser often determines whether they look at more than just price, as does the relationship between the pricing arm of an organisation and the part to which the service is being delivered. With most organisations, particularly those in the quasi-public sector putting every contract out to tender or re-tendering every three or four years, being able to demonstrate added value has become increasingly important.


Johnston believes that there has been more change in the Northern Ireland legal market in the last five years than in perhaps the prior couple of decades.

While that has meant more competition the firm has also benefited from the increased mobility that competition has encouraged.

“When you came into this profession 20 or 30 years ago that was it, you came in to a firm, you stayed with the same firm and never moved. I don’t think that’s healthy, it was too stagnant. So it is good to have movement. We have benefited greatly from people from other firms joining us, particularly those who have trained and qualified in blue chip firms across the water and are dual qualified, allowing us to service clients’ needs locally and further afield. We like the blend of growing our own talent mixed with lawyers who have trained in leading City of London firms,” he says.

“Unlike most of our competitors, we haven’t had to lose any staff through recessionary reasons,” Johnston notes, adding that the firm now has more lawyers than they had at the start of the recession.

Michael says Carson McDowell is keen to keep developing talent within the firm and continues to take on apprentices. Historically the majority of apprentices remain with the firm and are encouraged in all aspects of career development. He cites the Arts & Business Board Bank – where young executives sit on the board of an arts organisation – as a particularly useful tool in giving up-and-coming staff strategic experience.

An art lover and keen collector himself, Michael sits on the newly-formed board of Arts & Business Northern Ireland, an organisation which works to spark creative partnerships between commerce and culture. Along with Rosemary Carson, one of the firm’s Commercial Property Partners, he also judges the annual Carson McDowell prize given to art students at the University of Ulster. This support for local artists is one way the firm seeks to demonstrate that it is part of Northern Ireland society and not just the business community.


Michael Johnston’s vision for the future is to ensure the firm keeps on growing and remains the largest independent law firm in Northern Ireland.

To that end it has invested in attracting and retaining lawyers across every area of legal expertise.

There are several areas where the Managing Partner expects particular growth. Among them are litigation, defamation and commercial work – both because people generally have become more litigious and because many others are re-reading contracts signed at the height of the economic boom three or four years ago and not liking what they find.

Banking will also continue to be a focus, particularly as the firm is on the panel for NAMA, and while corporate finance deals have been in relatively short supply Johnston says there are also signs that the pipeline for deals is improving.

“I think you get to a point in any cycle where things have to happen, for example where a business owner is retiring. People who have parked plans now realise it is going to be a gradual recovery so by waiting a couple of years they are not going to significantly improve their position,” he notes.

Other expected growth sectors include technology, energy, renewables and healthcare, all segments which play to the strengths of Carson McDowell’s specialists in M&A, planning, procurement, regulatory, IT and intellectual property law.

And with many clients, such as Wrightbus and Chain Reaction Cycles, operating in export markets, the firm is also cultivating its links worldwide and increasing its capabilities to take on international work.

“In addition to developing new specialisms, it is also about building on the sectors where we are already strong and developing those further – you can’t stand still or you go backwards. We’ve looked at ourselves and realised we are very strong in a number of key sectors, so we need to make that clearer to people. For example, in the transport sector, we act for The Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Belfast International Airport, Translink and Wrightbus, and we need to make sure that the market is aware of that expertise and sector knowledge,” says Michael.

“What we want to do going forward is really emphasise our strengths, and our breadth of expertise that no other law firm in Northern Ireland can match, and use this to continue to grow the firm whilst continuing to work on the relationships we have with existing clients.”

He adds: “In this economic climate, the next few years aren’t going to be easy, there’s no point in pretending they are, but from an upside perspective it will continue to force us to focus on our clients, keeping them happy by matching our expertise with their particular needs. We are so fortunate to have great clients, brilliant lawyers and a plan for forging ahead. We have the fundamentals in place, we just need to keep making more internal changes to ensure our systems and processes are world class.

“In Northern Irish terms we see ourselves as remaining right up there, we’ve always been a leading firm and we are determined to keep that position whilst embracing change and fighting complacency.”

So despite an increasingly competitive marketplace, Carson McDowell looks set to remain a law firm to be reckoned with.


What his clients say

“Having worked with Michael on various types of transactions I have always found him to have a diligent and positive approach to any issue. His quiet, yet determined ‘can do’ attitude reflects the professional approach which pervades the whole Carson McDowell team.”

John Clarke, Farrans


“I have always found Michael to be a highly competent commercial solicitor. He always applies a commercial approach to the law and quickly grasps a clear understanding of the needs of his client. All negotiations are conducted in a calm and reasonable manner backed up by irrefutable logic.”

Michael Moreland, Andrews Flour


“I worked with Michael Johnston for a number of years on various aspects of our institution’s business. During that time I came to admire his professionalism and value his advice on a wide variety of legal issues. Not only is Michael very professional in his approach to legal matters, but his style and personality made him a great pleasure to work with.”

Public sector client


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