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JP McDowell profile
JP McDowell

18 Nov 2022 / People Print

No going back

JP McDowell has led a successful merger of McDowell Purcell with global firm Fieldfisher. He speaks to Mary Hallissey, saying ‘We’re never going back to the traditional office environment’.

Solicitor JP McDowell led the merger of his firm McDowell Purcell with Fieldfisher in May 2019, after taking careful note of the growing trend towards globalisation of the Dublin legal market.

Fieldfisher is an international law firm with a network of more than 1,550 people working across 25 offices across Britain and Europe. And a booming Fieldfisher office of around 40 people in Silicon Valley delivers EMEA legal services to Palo Alto tech firms, but on local time. “They wanted 8am to 6pm access to their lawyers, and that doesn’t work in a different time zone,” JP explains.

McDowell Purcell was founded in Dublin city centre by JP’s father, Denis McDowell, who died in October 2021 at the age of 85. JP and Breen Purcell began work in the firm in 1998: “We grew the firm from there. In 2015, there were maybe 40 solicitors in the firm. We were a mid-tier Dublin firm, but where were going?”

“I went to London, met with several different firms over there, and identified Fieldfisher, with whom we had done some work. Roll forward to 2019 and we completed the merger.

“We are a fully integrated firm, and the partners in the practice are partners globally. We haven’t looked back,” he said.

Revenues have grown by one-fifth, and the firm employs 56 solicitors and a staff of 130. The Dublin office now has 13 partners. The practice had previously merged with planning specialists Barry Doyle and Co, based on Dublin’s quays.

On the lookout

McDowell is now searching for high-quality niche firms that are interested in a bigger international platform, and is on the lookout for prospects for further mergers. The firm is shortly moving to bigger city-centre offices to allow scope for the planned expansion. Ambitious growth plans should see it grow by 25% by 2025.

The firm has corporate, employment, and litigation departments, with a very significant regulatory practice acting for public-sector entities, including the LSRA, the Medical Council, the Environmental Protection Agency, and An Bord Pleanála.

Their work includes judicial review, enforcement, and defending legal challenges to the exercise of statutory functions. McDowell foresees an oversight landscape that will continue to expand, with regulatory scope extending shortly to digital media and online gambling, to give just two examples.

“This regulatory expansion dates from the financial meltdown in 2008, and the Central Bank now has massively increased powers,” he notes. “We have probably the biggest team of solicitors in the country [27] dedicated exclusively to regulatory law and public-sector entities,” he explains, predicting further growth.

Significant advantages

The Fieldfisher brand brings with it significant advantages, the managing partner believes: “We now have IT solutions that we wouldn’t have been able to afford as a mid-tier Dublin firm, such as case-management systems and e-discovery software, which have been transformative,” he explains.

Access to the Fieldfisher Belfast hub of solicitors and paralegals, for term-limited project work, offers a successful outsourcing solution (for due diligence or e-discovery work, for example) without the costs of creating permanent jobs. “That allows us to upscale very quickly,” he says, noting the lower cost but high-quality legal staff available in the North.

Fieldfisher advised the Sazerac Company on its recent acquisition of Sligo’s Lough Gill Distillery when they needed a European manufacturing facility. Renewables firm Simply Blue has also been able to tap into Fieldfisher’s wider scope and quickly access wider legal services in other European cities.

“One of the reasons we have been able to work so successfully with Simply Blue is that we can offer them equivalent services in other European countries and cities. They’ve been very happy about that,” he explains.

Growth plans

Fieldfisher in Ireland is now in hiring mode, with strong growth plans. The firm wants to bulk up hiring in the areas of both financial services, and technology and data privacy, for which it is well known.

“The biggest challenge to law firms in this country, in terms of hiring and recruitment, is from in-house,” says JP. Hiring in this area is particularly difficult, given the lure of in-house roles in the big-tech firms headquartered in Ireland.

“It’s not just that we are law firms competing with each other [for staff], we are also competing with in-house roles, in every client sector,”  he says.

Location flexibility

He accepts that location flex-ibility is now essential in hiring, and each recruit must be approached on a case-by-case basis. During lockdown, some of his staff relocated and bought houses in Cork, Galway and Wexford. The Dublin office saw a skeleton staff come into work, in person. “We quickly learned that we had to be a lot more flexible than we had anticipated,” JP says. “I think that will continue.”

However, for teams to operate effectively and for trainees to get effective mentoring, he believes a balance must be struck: “It can’t disintegrate into lawyers being at home the whole time,” he says.

He generally gets a reason-able response, and trainees are usually eager for in-person mentoring: “There is a social responsibility on us to make sure that there is a continuing regular presence that facilitates inclusivity within teams and effective training,” he adds.

“I do worry about trainees coming out, having spent two of the last three years fully at home.”

The key skills of managing client relationships and handling difficult conversations can only be learned in person, from observing senior lawyers at work, he feels: “Client meetings are difficult to do over Teams or Zoom.”

McDowell believes that we are in the foothills of a new world of work now, and a clearer picture will be evident in three years. Talk of three-day/two-day rosters between home and office has “all gone out the window”, he declares.

“We’re never going back to the traditional office environ-ment, in my view. Every firm must work out what works best for them”. He would like to see in-office attendance of 60% each day.

“If the trainees of today are to be partners in ten years, they not only need good training, but also to feel the glue of the firm,” he says.

Political uncertainty

A slowdown in the British economy is a concern for Fieldfisher.

“A big part of the firm is the UK market for legal services, so any slowdown will have consequences for all law firms. There is no denying we must be concerned about the UK economy,” he says. “On the other hand, Brexit has produced benefits for Dublin and Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Paris. Brexit has led to Fieldfisher clients in need of local advice on establishing in Dublin to get a foothold in Europe.”

Dublin is seen as one of the leading European platforms – English-speaking, common law, and with an educated workforce – for clients seeking a foothold in Europe, says JP.

He expresses the hope that Britain will move from political uncertainty into some period of stability, sooner rather than later: “Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s hard to tell, but we’d prefer to see a more stable political environment there. The demand for services has continued to be strong, and we are well hedged in the areas that we specialise in.”

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Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie