Chris Ross is managing partner at John McKee Solicitors, which has a workforce of 60 people at offices in Belfast.
What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the EU?
Shock and surprise. Certainly myself, most of my colleagues, friends and family had voted to remain. I don’t think people thought it would happen. I was personally concerned. Could people not see the bigger picture of how this would impact on Northern Ireland?
How is your business likely to be affected?
Our business in the legal profession isn’t likely to be immediately affected. It’s the knock-on effect for our clients in the agrifood, transport and financial services sectors. It would mean we may lose some business. It may be the case some clients go out of business.
When did you begin preparing for Brexit and what contingency plans have you put in place so far?
We started thinking about it after the vote. We thought about the likely threats and concerns but there was so much uncertainty there was very little to do apart from stay vigilant, remain agile and responsive and stay up to date with what is going on. The uncertainty remains, which is frustrating. We have an idea what may be coming down the tracks but there is no certainty around it which makes it difficult to properly advise clients.
Are you examining new markets/suppliers and, if so, how practical is that?
Part of our growth strategy has been to explore new growth markets as the local market has become very saturated. We had been looking to expand in the UK market and further afield. Over the past five years we have been looking at opportunities, mainly in England and Scotland, and into Europe as well. We do some cross-Border work. We have English and Republic of Ireland qualified lawyers so can work in both, mainly for financial services clients and commercial property work.
Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?
It does. There is a competitive advantage for Northern Ireland being the only UK country with an EU land border that means companies and firms may relocate to the North so they are operating under single-market rules but would then have tariff-free access to the UK market.
What we have seen are some businesses relocating and building warehouses and offices close to the Border. Some English companies, including law firms, have been looking at setting up in Northern Ireland.
When do you expect to be Brexit-ready?
We are as ready now as we will ever be. Again it is that agility and making sure we are responsive. We can adapt pretty readily.
What’s your best/worst case scenario?
We are being realistic and believe Brexit is going to happen. What we want is a soft Brexit. Neither we, nor any of our clients, want a hard border, so it is a case of trying to exit Europe on the best terms possible. Worst case is crashing out with no deal and a hard border imposed.
How might the Irish or British governments, or the EU, help ease the pain of Brexit for your company or sector?
More collaboration would help. More honest conversations. More decisiveness. There has been too much indecision, uncertainty and mixed signals. We have seen politicians saying one thing and doing another.
How do you think the Irish and British governments has handled the Brexit negotiations?
Poorly. There has been a lot of indecision and public concern caused by the manner in which the governments have failed to act together responsibly.
Looking out five years, how do you think your business or industry will have changed as a result of Brexit?
Northern Ireland has been in the spotlight for a lot of good reasons, with a lot of fantastic investment through tourism, tech and legal sector companies. I am trying to be optimistic and look for the opportunities. We are an independent firm. There will be those who will look to instruct local independent law firms and I think we will stand out as one of those.
The restoration of Stormont would have a major impact on the outlook of the next five years. If it doesn't come back, I think we will all miss out on investment opportunities.
Would you like to see a second referendum on Brexit?
Yes. I think the result would be different this time around but I think it’s probably too late and should have been done months ago.