JP Irvine, general counsel and company secretary with Translink, looks at market segments and key benefits for lawyers in northern Ireland

I have been very lucky in my career to date. My first five years as a lawyer were in private practice - working in Brussels and London for the Global law firm Clifford Chance, then working on cutting edge energy deals in Ireland for Arthur Cox. After that I have spent the last 10 years in two very different and exciting In-house roles in Northern Ireland, both with a judicious degree of international and cross border legal work. From 2006-2010 I founded the legal team within a national competition regulator from Belfast – the Utility Regulator, and since then have enjoyed a really wide span of legal, cyber, internal audit and board level responsibility in my current post as GC and Co Sec for Translink.

In-house Legal Market Segments in Northern Ireland

In the ten years I have been an In-house lawyer, I have seen the market here become more sophisticated and diverse in terms of In-house opportunities and market developments. For me, the market here breaks down into four clear segments

  1. Classic Commercial and Industrial ‘C&I’. This is rapidly becoming the biggest In-house segment in Northern Ireland from lowly beginnings. Nowadays not only do large indigenous companies have legal departments such as Translink and Moy Park (the latter a sponsor of the last football World Cup Final), but also there are major global corporates with impressive local presence such as Diageo/Guinness, Coca Cola, and even the Financial Times Newspaper.
  2. Banks – All the local and national banks with a Belfast presence have legal teams established here. As an adjunct to banking we are also seeing the rise of FinTech in Belfast, with some foreign direct investment (supported by the NI government and the organization Invest NI) supporting legal and other professional In-house jobs.
  3. Alternative legal businesses / near shoring of global legal models – Over the past decade a form of in –house legal role has surfaced within law firms themselves. These tend to be more local support to global fee-earning propositions whereby Belfast lawyers work ‘In-house’ supporting teams for Allen & Overy, Herbert Smith Freehills, and the global legal services giant Baker & McKenzie (to name but a few). Well over 200 ‘legal professional’ jobs have been created thus far and many more look set to follow with the British government’s stated policy aim to devolve and facilitate a lower corporation tax arrangement for Northern Ireland as a legislatively distinct region of the UK.
  4. By far the largest provider of In-house legal roles, if one does not only look at the commercial sphere, is the Public Sector in Northern Ireland. Between the employed lawyers working for the Office of the Attorney General, the Northern Ireland Court Service, the government legal service (known as DSO), the Public Prosecution Service, and the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission (not to mention the countless arms length bodies and NDPBs) there are well over 300 In-house lawyers in the employment of the State in one capacity or another.

Key Benefits for In-house lawyers in Northern Ireland

Generally speaking I would point to the following general benefits which all In-house lawyers I know come to enjoy. These are:

  1. Developing the strategic you: Business acumen, finance skill, setting corporate objectives and vision – all of these come from life as an in-house lawyer in modern times. Frequently one is asked not just to advise on the legalities of a matter but provide strategic advice.
  2. Seeing the journey from inside the lead car – rather than stuck behind and unsighted on many aspects as external lawyers often are: Being the total adviser from start to finish is very satisfying. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the evolution of a matter from project inception, or contract design, through to deal closure or being there for the cutting of the ribbon on a major infrastructure project start to finish. In private practice you are often very focused on particular aspects of a transaction/case. As an inhouse lawyer you’re often involved every step of the way and you get to see the product of your legal and strategic advices practically played out.
  3. The community of in-house lawyers and the Law Society’s supportive role: There is an tremendous camaraderie of spirit between fellow In-house lawyers who operate in a different business context from the directly competitive pressures between lawyers in competing private practices. The work of the Law Society for Northern Ireland in spotting the In-house network in this country, giving it space to meet, meeting rooms, seminars of mutual interest, has been something of a catalyst for getting the community of In-house lawyers gelling together very well.
  4. The transferability of in-house legal skills: Because of Northern Ireland’s unique geographical and geopolitical positions, (chiefly its UK status, its land border with Ireland, its talented graduate pool, its attractive cost base, and its relative physical proximity to the US on one side and mainland Europe on the other) there are huge opportunities to transfer skills, gain cross border legal experience, tap into newer legal disciplines such as energy law, the rise of regulatory law, Fin Tech, and corporate governance tool kits. There is nothing parochial or inward-looking about the vast majority of In-house legal posts I come across in Northern Ireland. Horizons, skill sets and opportunities for Northern Ireland lawyers to test their legal skills and mettle on a wider EU stage are expanding all the time. Take myself for example – having worked on the EU’s largest cartel cases in Brussels, having held the UK microphone when negotiating new EU energy directives at the European Council (on behalf of government) and now dealing with international suppliers and manufacturers on ground-breaking infrastructure projects on a weekly basis, my working week has a breadth and depth to it that I could not have imagined sitting at my desk in Queens University Law School in the year 2000.