Extending the long arm of the law
The managing partner of law firm Holmes O’Malley Sexton is developing a niche base in Dublin, away from its Limerick roots, writes CAROLINE MADDEN
ON THE day we meet, Harry Fehily is just back from his first ever trip to New York. Apart from the standard Big Apple experiences – staying in the Irish enclave that is Fitzpatrick’s Hotel, eating in the famous River Café in Brooklyn – the managing partner of Limerick law firm Holmes O’Malley Sexton (Homs) also brushed shoulders with a favourite lecturer from his student days – none other than the “very colourful, very erudite” President Michael D Higgins.
At an Ireland Funds dinner gala in the Lincoln Center, Fehily reminded the President that he campaigned for him during the 1983 European elections, to which Michael D quipped that it wasn’t his most successful campaign – he didn’t get elected. Enjoyable as the campaign was, it proved to be Fehily’s first and last brush with politics. These days he pours all his ambitions into developing Homs, using a strategy that hinges on becoming a bigger fish in a bigger pond – with the pond in question being the Dublin market.
Sitting in the firm’s Georgian offices on Hume Street, if Fehily is tired from a hectic New York trip, a transatlantic flight and a drive to Dublin, he doesn’t show it. And indeed he has good reason to be energised – while away he received a phone call from a colleague to tell him Homs had scooped the Munster Provincial Law Firm of the Year award at the inaugural Irish Law Awards in the Shelbourne Hotel.
But while the firm (which employs 85 people, 35 of whom are solicitors) may be riding a crest at the moment, he is acutely aware of the challenges that persist.
In front of him on the desk is a clipping from the New York Times – a full-page article examining the collapse of the venerable New York city law firm Dewey Leboeuf, which the piece compared to the fall of Arthur Andersen and Lehman Brothers.
Fehily believes the fault lay with Dewey’s partners for not changing with the times and become more businesslike. By this he means they should have focused on their clients rather than relying on their reputation and assuming work would always come to their door. “You have to focus first and foremost on the clients as opposed to on your colleagues,” he says. “I think some traditional firms are probably more collegiate than our firm would be.”
While it may have a modern outlook, Homs has a distinguished past too. It was formed in 1972 with the merger of three Limerick partnerships – those of Gordon Holmes, Michael O’Malley and Jim Sexton.
Holmes, who was the lead partner in Homs until 11 years ago, was an old-school gentleman, a hugely respected figure on the law scene and a “very brilliant” man. At the age of 26 he played bridge for Ireland against Omar Sharif, but gave up the glamour of international cards at 28 and went on to become Ireland’s first State Solicitor, chairman of the Parole Board and of the Garda Siochána Complaints Board, among other positions. “The list is endless,” Fehily says.
Holmes, he says, always felt Dublin was very important to the firm and spent a lot of time in the capital, as many of their clients were – and still are – based there. However, he wasn’t quite prepared to make the leap and set up a base in the city.
Fehily, however, has boldly gone where his predecessor did not. “Four years ago, when I became managing partner, that was one of the first things I did. We felt that we could be competitive here [in Dublin] in particular niche areas, professional indemnity insurance being one. We’ve done a lot of work in that area.”
The firm acts for many of the large insurers such as Royal Sun Alliance, and defends professionals such as engineers, architects, solicitors and barristers – on behalf of their insurer – when cases are taken against them.
This is a growing niche at the moment, partly because of problems arising from the fact some solicitors failed to put proper security in place in relation to property deals. In some cases, these types of mistakes may have been made because solicitors came under “undue pressure” to get security in place very quickly to make sure the financial institution lent the money and the deal went through.
Dublin is proving a strong growth area, which is just as well because Limerick is in a “poor place economically”, with many small solicitors’ firms shutting up shop. He anticipates that in three years’ time the Dublin practice will be as big as the Limerick operation. However, this rapid growth in the capital presents a challenge for Fehily personally. Married with three children, he already spends half of his working week (which includes Saturdays) away from his family, travelling up to Dublin on Monday evenings and staying in members’ accommodation in the St Stephen’s Green Club until Thursday.
It’s all work and no play while he’s in Dublin, with his social life pretty much limited to entertaining clients, which he does in Residence, or the Unicorn, which is conveniently located just outside the back door of the Hume Street office.
However, if the Dublin practice continues to expand as expected, he says the firm will have to “take a look” at how it’s run – which may mean having two managing partners or perhaps a managing committee.
In the meantime, he’ll be relying on the old world hospitality of the St Stephen’s Green Club – and a very supportive wife.
We felt that we could be competitive here [in Dublin] in particular niche areas, professional indemnity insurance being one. We’ve done a lot of work in that area