Belfast is well known for many things. The infamous Titanic, the most splendid ocean liner ever made, which couldn’t quite manage to finish its first voyage. A ‘peace wall’ that has remained standing for 33 years longer than its more famous cousin in Berlin. The most gifted footballer the world has ever seen, George Best, ok I may be a bit biased on this one, and, also one of the greatest song writers, Van Morrison (also biased).
You may have noticed a common theme in that these “bests” (forgive the pun) are all flawed in their own way. What, may you say, has this got to do with the world of road traffic personal injury? The very tenuous link is that despite Belfast’s many dubious bests it has attracted more law firms than many other cities in the world.
As a somewhat parochial city where there had been very little change in the legal landscape in legal firms over the one hundred years since the formation of the Law Society of Northern Ireland in 1922, the last ten years have seen a sea change in ownership of legal practices. Indeed, a whole new area of legal practice has been created in the city, but more of that later.
The majority of ‘defence’ firms who received instructions from the main insurers, most of them from ‘across the water’ – essentially England (sorry Admiral) were all in local ownership. Firms such as Campbell Fitzpatrick, C&H Jefferson and McKinty & Wright acted in the majority of defence cases. As our system of practice avoided the Civil Procedure Rules which has dramatically changed the legal practice framework in England and Wales, the processing and settling of cases took place against these firms, or ones like them, in the majority of cases.
However, change was afoot and each of those firms were taken over by larger English firms, BLM took over Campbell Fitzpatrick in 2014, DWF took over C&H Jefferson in 2016 and DAC Beachcroft took over McKinty & Wright in 2019. While they may have been the largest firms subject to take-overs they were certainly not the only ones. Lewis Silkin have taken over employment specialist Jones Cassidy Jones and Forde Campbell who had IT, IP and Technology based practice in the last two years. Shoosmiths took over McManus Kearney who worked in debt and banking law. So the trend is continuing in many areas of law whom we will interface with on a regular basis.
There is a second trend which is symptomatic of multinational firm approach in sourcing ‘back office’ bases in Belfast. Baker McKenzie, Allen & Overy, Eversheds-Sutherland and Herbert Smith Freehill have all opened offices in Belfast over the last number of years to assisting their other offices around the world. Low cost, well qualified staff, and Northern Ireland’s unique position in the EU (as well as out of it but in GB) all play a part.
Legal graduates in Belfast you have an incredible choice of where to pitch new found skills. It is not too hard to guess which firms have the higher wages in this set up! It is something, in my view, that can only benefit the legal profession in this jurisdiction. Not everyone agrees with large firms continuing to grow as it may impact badly on ‘high street’ solicitors but as with everything we have to keep up with the times and change accordingly. One interesting caveat however is that no large plaintiff personal injury firm has made the jump across the water. Our personal injury protocol and court actions are straightforward and have not been disrupted by events in other jurisdictions but it is still a collegiate and pleasant area of law to work in.
I started out with some of Belfast’s more renowned claims to fame. I am not saying it is the best place to practice law, or do anything for that matter, but clearly it has an attraction for larger national and multinational legal firms that would not have been imaginable ten years ago.
Brian Cole, author of “Northern Ireland – Review” is Partner Personal Injury Department at Diamond Heron in Belfast.