Interview: Michael Jackson, Matheson

18 May 2020 | 03.00 pm

Interview: Michael Jackson, Matheson

'We foresee increased levels of activity in our litigation practice'

18 May 2020 | 03.00 pm

The biggest threat facing the legal sector is now the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, says Matheson Managing Partner, Michael Jackson (pictured)

Over the past year, which aspects of the firm’s development and growth have pleased you most?

The past year has been a busy period for Matheson across the entire business. The firm has expanded both in its office presence and headcount, where we now have 740 professionals, of whom 515 are legal, tax, and digital services professionals.

In line with our overall growth we continued to add recognised industry experience and expertise in the form of external hires and partner appointments, notably in the areas of corporate M&A, digital services, employment, technology and innovation, data privacy, commercial real estate and construction. We have also expanded our office presence in London, New York and Cork in response to our growing client demand.

2019 was also a year of significant progress in relation to Matheson’s people strategy. In July 2019, we launched our Agile Working programme, and the lessons we were able to learn from some of the issues people identified have benefited us greatly in continuing to deliver a full and seamless service as we moved to implement the recent government Covid-19 guidelines.

Our Diversity and Inclusion work continues to be a high priority for the firm and we were awarded the Gold Standard for Investors in Diversity by the Irish Centre for Diversity, having previously held the Silver Standard.

Our focus on social mobility was evidenced through our D&I Scholarship programme, which provides mentoring, financial and practical support to law students accessing TCD through the HEAR and DARE schemes.

What areas of the firm are a focus for you currently?

We now have more than 30 practice areas across six office locations to service the needs of all of our clients. A key focus for the firm is the increasing demand from clients for legal technology, particularly in relation to large-volume deal work, enhanced legal process efficiency, and bespoke new digital products in the delivery of legal solutions.

In October 2019, we took the strategic decision to create Matheson’s Digital Services Group. The MDSG is a dedicated multidisciplinary team of software developers, legal solutions consultants, project managers, document automation specialists and business analysts. The unique aspect of this group is that it is truly a collaborative process, where we work closely with our clients to arrive at customised digital solutions that specifically meet their legal needs.

Another area where we have noted significant momentum is our Corporate M&A practice, which advised on four of the five announced public takeovers in 2019, providing counsel to IFG Group plc, Independent News & Media plc, CGI Inc and Abbvie Inc. The recent arrival of David Fitzgibbon, a senior partner with a significant corporate practice, will add to our strength in depth in this area and we see further opportunity for future growth.

Our corporate restructuring department is also among the largest of any Irish law firm and had a particularly busy year in 2019. We advised Weatherford International plc, the Irish registered, NYSE listed, oilfield services company on one of the largest global corporate restructuring transactions in 2019 (and one of the largest in Irish corporate history), involving a $5.8 billion debt-for-equity swap and refinancing. The transaction involved the first ever use of a US Chapter 11 bankruptcy and an Irish examinership process; a unique and highly innovative legal structure.

Our litigation practice had a busy year, working on a number of high profile cases including in the area of regulatory investigations and enforcement. This is an area where we foresee increased levels of activity. Matheson’s tax department and financial services departments have also experienced significant growth and remain the largest groups of their kind amongst Irish law firms.

What’s the outlook for Ireland’s legal services sector?

The primary areas which people cite when expressing concern around the outlook for the legal sector appear to be the impact of technology, the arrival of new competitors in the market place and the difficulty in attracting talent.

We see each of those as areas of strength for Matheson, and that is reflected in the ongoing growth of the firm. We have invested heavily in technology and the establishment of our Digital Services Group underlines the confidence we have that technology is a competitive advantage rather than a threat to our business.

New market entrants, many of whose arrival is primarily but not exclusively driven by Brexit planning, also signify the likely growth in the demand for legal services in Ireland as our position as an English speaking member of the EU becomes an even greater competitive advantage.

For over 20 years Matheson’s strategic focus has been on servicing the needs of internationally focused businesses and financial institutions doing business from Ireland, and it is the growth in activity in that area which continues to drive the growth in our business.

We have also invested heavily in our people strategy and designed customised programmes in conjunction with leading business schools to ensure that our lawyers are not only technically excellent but have a deep understanding of business and the pain points our clients experience. We have found that by investing in our people, it has helped us to nurture and retain much of our talent from within the firm.

In our view, the most significant threat to the sector will come from the threat of economic downturn brought about by the Covid-19 crisis. Events which impact the ability of our clients to operate their businesses as normal will naturally impact the demand for legal services.

Notwithstanding this, the breadth and depth of our experience across all areas of commercial law and, in particular, our experience in corporate restructuring, debt refinancing and dispute resolution means that we have the capability to provide the services clients need to help them manage through those difficulties. By focusing on the fundamentals, we believe that we will remain competitive and realise our future growth ambitions.

What trends are you noticing regarding fees and charge-out rates in the sector?

Fees in the commercial legal sector in Ireland are very competitive. Irish commercial law firm rates are significantly lower than rates in other leading commercial cities. Few markets of comparable size have as many large law firms, with the leading Irish firms matching many continental firms in larger markets in numbers of lawyers. That ensures a high level of competition.

The quality and value of the professional services available in Ireland is one of the factors often cited by international companies as important in their decision to establish in Ireland.

As a firm, we are very focused on delivering value and excellent client service. For many clients these factors, rather than just the rate itself, are the basis on which they judge and select their law firms. Clients also recognise that having access to the highest quality people and people who have the experience to deal with complex matters quickly and efficiently are things that are worth investing in.

It is also worth noting that we are committed to offering value-added services to our clients as part of our overall service package. Our Knowledge Insights programme is one such example where clients can attend various Matheson industry themed workshops to gain insights from our corporate lawyers and guest speakers on key issues they may be facing, whether those needs relate to Brexit, data protection or employment law, we offer tailored insights for our clients based on market trends and client collaboration.

What aspects of your firm give you the competitive edge? 

We believe that our market strategy and our people strategy, underpinned by our core values of partnership, respect, innovation, diversity and entrepreneurship, give us a competitive edge. As noted earlier, we have focused for many years on being the law firm of choice for internationally focused companies and financial institutions doing business in and from Ireland.

We focus on partnering with our indigenous and international clients through the different cycles of their establishment, development and growth and becoming their trusted advisers across all aspects of their business. Much of the transactional growth we have seen in our corporate M&A group, for example, is driven by the deep relationships we have developed with firms over many years.

In terms of people strategy we believe that by continuously investing in and improving a robust talent programme and continuously delivering innovative client and business solutions that we succeed in engaging and motivating our people which allows us to maintain our competitive edge. Building a more diverse and inclusive workplace continues to be a key strategic business priority.

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