Some of Ireland’s biggest law firms grew significantly last year, with one increasing its solicitor numbers by more than 15 per cent.
Figures published by the Law Society show that, measured by the number of practicing solicitors' certificates, four of the top five firms grew in 2012, bucking the trend in the profession in general.
As of December 31st last year, Arthur Cox and Matheson both employed 228 solicitors, making therm the largest in terms of staff numbers in the list. Matheson increased its solicitor numbers by 9.6 per cent over the year, while Arthur Cox grew by 10.6 per cent.
The biggest increase was at the third largest firm, A&L Goodbody, which took on 29 new solicitors to bring its total to 212 , an expansion of almost 16 per cent.
A further three firms employ between 100 and 200 solicitors in terms of practising certificate numbers, with McCann FitzGerald on 170 (down seven), William Fry on 156 (up two) and Mason Hayes & Curran on 126 (up one).
The picture was mixed among the remainder of the top 20, with most showing relatively small shifts in their numbers over the 12-month period to last December.
The Law Society data, though superficial, are one of the very few measures provided by law firms of relative performance as almost all firms do not publish details of their financial performance.
The managing partner of Arthur Cox, Brian O’Gorman, said the figures were partly explained by the firm’s annual intake of 25-35 newly-qualified solicitors combined with the fact that the number who left last year was lower than usual.
Arthur Cox had also recruited specialists in “two or three areas” that had been more resilient. “Most of that is work driven by international clients and the international economy. For example, we have done some lateral recruitment in the area of investment funds and asset management.”
Mr O’Gorman said between 2008 and 2012 the number of solicitors at Arthur Cox had fallen.
“What we’re seeing is a period of slight stabilisation.”
The managing partner of A&L Goodbody, Julian Yarr, said a significant part of its growth was linked to investment in the international market, which represented more than 60 per cent of the firm's overall revenue.
A spokesman for Matheson Ormsby Prentice was not available for comment.
One of the few law firms that publishes its revenue figures, Mason Hayes & Curran, increased its revenue by 5 per cent in 2012 to €44.4 million.
The director general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy, said the 20 largest firms represented less than 1 per cent of the 2,200 firms in practice in the State and were not representative of solicitors' firms as a whole.
"In fact, according to our most recent figures, 945 firms have just one solicitor, and a further 573 solicitors' firms comprise two solicitors."
He said that while involuntary unemployment here had been negligible before 2008, the “sad and shocking fact” for the profession was that more than 1,000 solicitors were unemployed today. Many more were working part-time or on short-term contracts.