UK law firms have ramped up preparation for Brexit by registering a record number of solicitors in Ireland but confusion remains about how many of them will be able to practise in Ireland and the wider EU after Britain leaves.
The Law Society of Ireland said its solicitors roll had received 1,560 applications in the year to date – more than 31 times the average annual rate in the years before the 2016 EU referendum.Some 3,706 lawyers from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been registered since the beginning of 2016 as City firms scrabble to insulate themselves from Brexit's effects.Those include UK lawyers potentially losing rights of audience in European courts and seeing their ability to advise on European legal matters curtailed. In August the Law Society of England and Wales warned that the legal sector in the UK could face a £3.5 billion hit as a result of a no-deal Brexit.
"Typically, major international commercial law firms are the source of these transfers, in some cases hundreds from one firm," said Ken Murphy, director-general of the Law Society of Ireland. "It is an extraordinary development."
Elite UK firms Allen & Overy and Linklaters have among the largest numbers of lawyers signed up to the Irish roll, according to the Irish Law Society, with 287 and 250 respectively. Latham & Watkins has registered 155.
However, only 981 UK lawyers hold a “practising certificate” which allows them to work in Ireland, according to the Law Society.
Firms said they were waiting for the outcome of Brexit to determine whether to pay the annual cost of £2,650 per person required to take the final test. One top-tier UK law firm said only a “handful” of the hundreds of lawyers registered in Ireland had practising certificates, because of the cost and “the lack of clarity as to whether this will actually function as a workaround in a no-deal Brexit scenario.”
In March the Law Commission in Ireland announced new hurdles for lawyers hoping to rely on Irish practising certificates after Brexit, including requiring firms to have a base in Ireland and indemnity insurance issued within the country. Catherine Hudson, head of risk at Fieldfisher, said: "This was a surprise. A lot of people applied to be on the register in Ireland because they thought it would be a good plan B. But then the Irish Law Society published a note putting constraints on their practising certificates, suggesting they were concerned not to be used as a flag of convenience for people with no real professional connection to the republic."
A number of firms including DLA Piper, Covington & Burling and Simmons & Simmons have opened offices in Dublin, and avoided those issues. Others, such as Fieldfisher, have merged with Irish firms to gain a permanent foothold. DLA Piper launched a Dublin office in May and has so far recruited 11 partners, many poached from top-tier Irish firms.
Lawyers said the shift would create a more active transfer market and potential pay inflation in the traditionally conservative Irish legal market.
However Barry Devereux, managing partner of Irish firm McCann FitzGerald, said: “The large Irish law firms have always competed fiercely with each other, both for talent and for clients, so I don’t expect the entrance of US or UK law firms to have an enormous impact.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.