There were 10,972 solicitors with practising certificates on 31 December 2018 – an increase of 511 (or 4.8%) over the 10,461 practising certificate holders on the same date in 2017.
This 4.8% year-on-year increase in the total number of practising certificate figures contrasted favourably with the increase of 3.5% in practising certificate numbers in the previous year.
For the fourth year in a row, the Law Society is publishing, with some analysis, the numbers of practising certificates issued by the Society on the last day of the previous practice year (in this instance, 31 December 2018) for the firms with the 20 largest numbers.
The 2,653 practising certificates held by solicitors in the 20 largest firms on 31 December 2018 was 128 higher than the 2,525 on the equivalent date in 2017.
This represents 5% growth – just marginally higher than the 4.8% growth in practising certificate numbers in the profession as a whole.
These growth rates are hardly surprising, given the buoyant economy in Ireland in 2018.
In its most recently available projection for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, published in mid-December 2018, the Central Statistics Office projected that Ireland’s full-year GDP growth in 2018 would be a remarkable 7.5%.
Gross National Product (GNP), an alternative measure that strips out the effects of multinational profits, was up 5.2% from the second to the third quarter, and was projected to grow at an impressive rate close to 5% in the year 2018 overall.
Nevertheless, most commentators expect a slowdown in economic growth globally in 2019 – not least because of the uncertainties and likely negative consequences of Brexit.
It may be that 2018 will be remembered in Ireland, indeed in most parts of the globe, as a halcyon year of economic growth that may not be matched for some time to come.
Reviewing the growth in the 20 largest firms over the last year, indeed over the last four years, the picture is characterised not just by growth, but stability.
There has been relatively little change, for example, in the ‘size-ranking’ table. The majority of firms find themselves, relative to other firms, in or about the same position as they were last year, and in the years preceding it.
Neck and Neck
The bragging rights of being the ‘largest firm’ have been passing back and forth between Arthur Cox and A&L Goodbody. The neck-and-neck nature of this contest could be seen starkly in 2016 when each had exactly the same number of practising solicitors (275).
A&L Goodbody surged ahead in 2017 by a margin of no less than 19, but the Arthur Cox number rebounded strongly in 2018, with the effect that, on 31 December, it was ahead by 294 to 292 – a margin of just two.
Matheson with 285, once again in third place, has been remarkably consistent – growing by 17 practising certificates in each of the last two years.
The star performer in practising certificate growth numbers in 2018 was McCann FitzGerald, with an increase of 31 practitioners – probably the biggest single-year practising certificate growth number for an Irish firm ever. It remains in fourth place, however.
The Mason Hayes & Curran increase of 26 was also remarkable and not far behind. It would have been the fastest growing firm most other years and, in fact, in percentage growth terms, its increase is slightly ahead of that of McCann FitzGerald.
This growth enabled Mason Hayes & Curran to leapfrog William Fry to fifth place in the table.
The firms ranked from sixth to tenth in size remain in exactly the same order as in the previous year. Ronan Daly Jermyn with 101, breaks the ‘barrier’ to join, for the first time, the firms with practising certificate numbers in three digits.
What impact on this growing, but stable, picture will result from the arrival, for the first time, of international law firms establishing in Dublin? One of the world’s largest firms, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, is already on this list in 13th place.
However, this is somewhat misleading, as the practising certificate holders remain based in their offices in London and Brussels. The firm has no office in Ireland nor, it has said publicly, any plan to open one here.
Pinsent Masons has established in Dublin in the wake of the Brexit vote, but the challenge to the firms on this list is likely to come in more powerful form from the declared ‘disruptor’ – the world’s fourth largest law firm, DLA Piper.