Cantillon: Big hitters just keep on winning in legal sector

Given that most of Ireland’s big law firms so assiduously guard even their most basic financial information, outsiders will gratefully seize on any means of gauging how they’re faring. One of these is the number of practising certificates at each firm, which gives us a glimpse at the latest hiring trends in the sector.

Yesterday this newspaper published a list of the 20 largest firms, as measured by the number of practising certificates they held on December 31st last. It showed that some of the biggest firms grew significantly last year – by more than 15 per cent in the case of A&L Goodbody. But for most of the top 20, there were only small shifts in overall numbers.

The statistics are merely a snapshot; they change from day to day. But there are some indications that, for the biggest firms at least, the trend has held so far this year. According to the Law Society's Law Directory , which contains figures for February 22nd this year, 19 of the top 20 firms saw an increase in their solicitor numbers in the first two months of 2013.

The directory shows further rises for firms such as Matheson, Arthur Cox, McCann Fitzgerald and Mason Hayes and Curran. Just yesterday, Ronan Daly Jermyn – one of just two firms based outside Dublin in the list of 20 – said it would create 20 new jobs over the next 18 months. A number of other firms, including Philip Lee, say their solicitor numbers have risen this year.

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There are caveats, of course. Some law firms would have many non-solicitors on their books, including UK-qualified lawyers, tax professionals and accountants, so the list is only a partial measure of size. Moreover, it’s possible that many firms see a spike every January as they tend to take out practising certificates for newly qualified solicitors around then.

The other major qualifier, as noted by the Law Society, is that the figures for the biggest firms scarcely reflect experiences in the profession in general. The 20 largest firms represent less than 1 per cent of the 2,200 firms in practice in the State. More than 1,000 solicitors are out of work, according to the society, and many more are working part-time or on short-term contracts.

And yet the figures show that, while domestic activity might remain sluggish, international work keeps flowing for the biggest firms thanks to strong exports, rising foreign direct investment and resilient demand for their services from investment funds. Now, if only they could bring themselves to reveal the figures we’d all like to see . . .

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is an Assistant Editor of The Irish Times