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Law and a New Order

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Consolidation is the name of the game in today's market, as the term 'corporate restructuring' becomes far more commonplace.

The legal sector is also feeling the pinch, particularly small to medium-sized practices that have to work harder than ever to maintain growth.

The establishment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board in 2004 was, in many ways, the first catalyst for change because it saw many legal professionals quickly change direction to pursue what was then a lucrative path to conveyancing.

However, it wasn't long before fierce competition in the face of falling fees (especially on the residential side) combined with the onset of the current property slump meant another change in direction was needed. This, it seems, is happening in a variety of ways. Areas such as insolvency and litigation appear to be growing -- a sign of the times, if ever there was one.

According to John Macklin, head of legal recruitment with Brightwater Recruitment, another current trend is for many sole traders and smaller legal firms to merge in order to share overheads such as premises and support staff. The uptake of in-house counsel positions is also on the rise, according to Macklin.

The primary reasons for this, he believes, is the increase in company regulationsand compliance as well as the growing preference for this skillset across a wide range of sectors, including financial services, banking, industry and semi-state.

"Now more than ever, companies are realising the strategic benefits of having their legal counsel on hand as an integrated part of the organisation. It means both day-to-day queries and more long-term needs can be met in a timely and efficient manner."

And it's also ideal from the employee's point of view, according to Macklin. "It's great for those looking to develop their legal careers in what many feel is a more structured environment, offering a range of positions from junior in-house solicitor to head of legal," he says.

Traditionally, there has been a shortage of in-house lawyers with expertise in finance, funds and aviation. However, a steady influx of ex-pats keen to return home as well as an increasing number of international candidates relocating here has changed this. In many ways though, Ireland is playing catch up with countries such as the UK andthe US when it comes to the number of in-house positions, according to Macklin.

A diversifying landscape

Competition amongst small to medium-sized legal practices is intensifying, as they work harder to secure existing clients and identify new business opportunities in emerging sectors. Many legal firms are following in the footsteps of larger practices by hiring people to take up business development and marketing roles.

It bodes well for the marketplace, particularly when it comes to attracting new talent, according to Thomas O'Malley, a partner with McDowell Purcell. The Dublin-based practice has followed suit itself by hiring Liz Hughes to head up its marketing and communications department.

This is just one of three major appointments made by McDowell Purcell this year. Spotting opportunitiesin emerging markets, it has also hired a partner to head up its insolvency unit -- a new division that was set up just last month. "We established a new practice unit in that sector because of the growing demand for such expertise in the current climate. We see this continuing into the foreseeable future," says O'Malley.

Renewable energy is another growth sector and one that the firm is keen to get involved in. "Wind farms have supplemented the downturn in our property activity," says O'Malley. The Government has committed to sourcing 42pc of all energy through renewable sources by 2020, with a particular emphasis on wind. McDowell Purcell is closely watching all activities in this area and appointed a corporate lawyer who is an expert in this field to head its new division at the beginning of this year.

Independent minds

The establishment of new divisions is, in turn, providing ample opportunity for solicitors keen to gain a bit more autonomy without taking the step of going it alone. It can be an attractive next move for people with a good deal of industry expertise.

"In the past two years I have seen a significant number of senior lawyers in large commercial firms choosing to move to smaller companies in order to establish new commercial departments," says Macklin. He says that, typically, such people will have between five and 15 years'industry experience.