Lawyers are having their own Brexit.
More than a thousand U.K. lawyers have registered in Ireland since 2016 to make sure they can represent clients in European Union courts after the U.K. leaves the bloc. Figures from the Law Society of Ireland show 511 attorneys from England and Wales have registered in Ireland this year, on top of 806 who did so in 2016 — a total of 1,317.
Usually, only about 50 to 100 a year make the move, according to Ken Murphy, director-general of the Law Society of Ireland. Few attorneys are actually moving to Ireland, he said.
The lawyers, mostly antitrust and trade specialists, also fear they’ll lose a right that blocks authorities investigating a company from seizing the legal advice provided by its attorneys. Loss of the privilege, which is grounded in EU membership, could put U.K. lawyers “at some disadvantage” against those retaining the right, Murphy said.
London’s status as a global hub for advice on EU competition law and regulation may fade if attorneys lose access to the European Court of Justice. Mickael Laurans, who manages the Law Society of England and Wales’ international team, warned that more firms may move staff to Brussels, Paris, and other regional hubs.
Ministers at the U.K.’s Department for Exiting the European Union believe “people holding qualifications or in the process of acquiring them should be allowed to continue or begin their careers as they do now” throughout the region, Brexit secretary David Davis said last month.
Lawyers aren’t willing to take a risk, and Laurans said London’s loss of prestige may present an opportunity to other European cities.
“It may be that English firms will need to look at where they position people,” he said. “A lot of EU law advice is done out of London today. One question is, to what extent will this continue in the future?”
Eversheds Sutherland LLP had the largest number of lawyers registering in Ireland in 2017, at 132, according to the Law Society of Ireland. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP was second with 130 and Slaughter & May was third with 79. Spokespeople for Freshfields and Slaughter & May declined to comment and a spokeswoman for Eversheds said no-one was available.
It is just one of the ways in which law firms in the U.K. are feeling the effects of the country’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union. London’s biggest firms benefited from the weaker pound in the wake of the referendum, as they sought out growth overseas. The weaker currency also helped push up salaries for some of the city’s top young lawyers. Meanwhile the U.K. government is trying to keep London at the center of European commercial legal disputes after Brexit.
Registering in Ireland takes a month or two and requires some paperwork and an administrative fee of about 300 euros ($357). The U.K.’s departure may complicate things, Murphy said.
Laurans said it’s possible that future generations will have to take an exam to register in Ireland, which would be “onerous.”
The right to speak in an EU court, known as “rights of audience,” is restricted to lawyers who are qualified and regulated in a member state, “so on the face of it that would exclude U.K. lawyers post-Brexit,” Murphy said.
Murphy said attorneys saw their clients’ right to take advice without having it shared with investigation authorities as sacred.
Some lawyers have tried to bolster their ability to work in the EU by seeking nationality of a member state, Murphy said. He said he knew of lawyers that had become Irish and Belgian citizens.