17 Jan Interview with Owen O’Sullivan, Managing Partner of William Fry, Ireland
BF: Ireland has done extremely well over the COVID-19 pandemic, being the only economy in the EU to grow in 2020 and having projected GDP growth of 10.1% this year. To begin the interview, I’d like to talk about Ireland’s economy as a whole. What are the key factors behind Ireland’s recent economic success, and what kind of impact is it having on local industries and citizens?
Owen O’Sullivan: It’s fantastic that we are still maintaining growth when the environment is so challenging. But I think some particular features surrounding the Irish economy explain that. One is our physical location, another is the English language, and another is Brexit. But, actually, it’s probably more mostly to do with the very deep-rooted nature of some of the bigger businesses in Ireland and particularly the global businesses that have based themselves in Ireland here for all sorts of reasons. Historically, those reasons are largely grounded in tax and incentives, but in recent years they are probably much more broadly based around the stability of the economy, the stability of the regulatory environment, the available workforce, the proximity to the EU, and our proximity to the UK as well.
We’re a great steppingstone, particularly for inward investment from the US. So a lot of those really strong global businesses are deeply rooted in Ireland and despite the indigenous economy being as challenged as the economies and of many other jurisdictions throughout the EU, the fact that we have that global element of US-deeply-rooted European-focused businesses based here in Ireland has allowed us to do something that is quite anomalous relative to other jurisdictions. That growth probably is being driven more by the pharma, tech and data sectors. And I think if you were to look at those sectors on their own, they’re booming, not withstanding pandemic and post-pandemic challenges. Some of those even boomed because of the pandemic, and they’ve maintained a terrific momentum since then, which has been great. And new businesses are popping up all the time, which are spinouts from some of these bigger global international operations which are helping the communities and helping an awful lot of business environments and communities right around Ireland. I’m not saying that it’s all rosy, but there are a lot of really good things happening.
BF: William Fry is one of Ireland’s legacy law firms, with origins going back to the nineteenth century. In recent times the practice has done very well and now has offices in Dublin, Cork, London, New York and Silicon Valley. What milestones has the law firm recently passed that best showcase its success, and what is the company’s growth strategy moving forward?
Owen O’Sullivan: 1847 foundation, so 175 years, and we are very proud of that. It’d be very easy to just look back and think, that’s a fantastic success, rest on your laurels a little bit. We have spent some of the years looking back and trying to identify what it is that has shaped us, positioned us to be where we are today, asking ourselves what does that mean in terms of how we evolve our business in line with our clients expectations and the speed at which our clients’ businesses are evolving, and the way that clients require services to be delivered to them? It has been very refreshing to think broadly and think boldly about how we deliver our services, and what services we deliver.
In fact, through the last two years, we’ve done a very particular strategic review and we have identified particular sectors that we want to focus on. They are the areas where we’re going to devote investment in terms of our activities over the next number of years. At the same time, we want to really engage with our clients by understanding what it is they require from a firm like ours and how they want us to deliver those services. So the same digital transformation as lots of other businesses are going through, we are going through. The same challenges around ESG and sustainability and all the rest, we are going through. Even when we are pitching for work, it’s very enlightening to understand the things that are important to clients, and where there can be alignment between what we are trying to do and what they’re trying to do.
Finding ways in which we can partner with them. In fact, on one particular piece of business that we won during 2020, which was a very challenging time for all sorts of reasons, we went through a very rigorous tendering process for a very large piece of work. We won it, which was very satisfying itself, but one of the things that seemed to resonate with the potential client at the time was our ability to work with them and travel this parallel road of challenges on things like digital transformation, ESG and sustainability. But they wanted to know not what policies we had, rather what we were actually doing in the spaces and where there were opportunities to work together on some of those things. In the two years since we got that piece of work and started that relationship, which is going very well, we’ve been working on several things, very much on a partnership basis. So, it’s been a real eye-opener in terms of what clients’ expectations are and how we need to evolve as a business to deliver.
BF: Do you want to talk about what those sectors are?
Owen O’Sullivan: They won’t come as any surprise; at least, I suspect in the Irish context. Tech, data and coms big ones. Life science and pharma are there, and food and agriculture, but these won’t surprise anybody. And financial services are a very big core. No big surprises there either. Some smaller ones might come as a huge surprise, but include sport and leisure entertainment, which in an Irish context is very big. Several international sporting organizations have their bases in Ireland for all sorts of different reasons. And the leisure entertainment industry, in an Irish context, is very important too. So, sticking with some of the things that we already have good groundings in is very important. And making sure that we have our eyes open to the bigger things that are out there and tapping into those is important to us.
BF: Recent crises such as Brexit, the pandemic, and now the conflict in Ukraine have changed the landscape of Irish trade and business. How has Ireland reacted to these recent large shifts, and what kind of new opportunities are now opening up because of them?
Owen O’Sullivan: One thing that has luckily been beneficial for us in Ireland is our corporate tax take, not just because of some of the levels of activity in the Irish economy of these global international operators but some indigenous ones too. Our corporation tax take has been very strong, and that has enabled the government to insulate a lot of the businesses here from some of the worst effects of inflation, the war in Ukraine, and the energy crisis. So being able to spread that burden, or cushion that impact a little bit, has gone down well both with business and with society. It’s not necessarily sustainable in itself, but it has helped cushion the impact and allowed us to continue to reposition ourselves, to be less reliant on the energy, to refocus ourselves, reposition ourselves in terms of our energy sources. but also just to cushion a little bit of the impact of the inflation that’s coming from the energy side of things. We’ve been a little bit lucky in that respect. I think the harder you work and the smarter you get, the luckier you get too.
BF: Ireland has ambitiously committed to having net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. How is the rise of green investment changing Ireland’s industrial landscape, and what is the government doing to make sure it reaches its emissions goals?
Owen O’Sullivan: To the very last part of your question: what are we doing? The answer’s probably not enough, and likely not quickly enough. But we are now getting very tuned into what it’s going to take to get there. Not diminishing at all the challenges that are there, but there’s a lot of consciousness around what it is going to take. We need to move beyond talk and now act on what our ambitions are. And I’m sure you’ll be speaking to IDA and various others, but there was a new five year enterprise policy published only last week in which, as a consequence of the importance of environmental sustainability and as part of the government’s commitment to achieving some of the objectives we’ve set for 2050, the impact on the environment of any potential incoming enterprise project is going to be weighed as much as the potential job implications. So while we’re constantly trying to attract employment to Ireland, that is going to be weighed equally with the impact of the potential business on the environment in Ireland, and that’s a huge change. I think that’s going to become challenging, but it’s just part and parcel of what we need to do and part of building awareness around what it will take to get to those targets for 2050.
BF: The new digital revolution has changed the dynamic of business in every sector, from manufacturing to financial services, with the practice of law being no different. How has the rise in demand for new technologies helped bolster Ireland’s industrial landscape, and what kind of new disruptive technologies are having the most impact on the law sector?
Owen O’Sullivan: The pandemic woke us up and I think probably kicked us three or four years down the road. We were beginning to walk down that road, but and the way we are working now, and our reliance on technology and the ability to work remotely, is something that is with us for the future. There’s no going back to the way we were in 2019 or early 2020. So that has been huge. Organizations like us that were well set to adopt hybrid working and remote working even as it was in 2020 meant that business was able to operate very smoothly through the pandemic. We’ve continued that journey around digitization and the ability to connect. Certainly, larger chunks of our in-house investment in technology have been around the ability to communicate with clients as seamlessly as possible and to work with them across multiple different communication platforms. Much as we would like to think that everybody might be on a single platform that we could all enjoy and employ, the reality is that lots of clients in lots of different parts of the world are using different platforms. We’ve had to adapt and ensure that our technologies and our systems work with theirs, and they’re looking for much more detailed collaboration platforms.
We’ve had to gear up in terms of the way we deliver our services in a way that matches their expectations. But also just on the people side, we launched this initiative called PeopleBridge by William Fry, which expediates clients who have short-term legal and tax or other professional needs, whether it’s for some particular project or some investigation or some internal reorganization that they might be doing, where and they have that need of short-term resource. And on the other side, we have people who, for one reason or another, were out of the workforce or didn’t want to subscribe to a big firm.
BF: We’re doing quite a big sector of legal and law firms. And you’ve got a presence in the US. Tell me what differentiates William Fry from the other firms?
Owen O’Sullivan: More than anything, we like to get close to our clients. We pride ourselves on enabling success for our clients. We also pride ourselves on involving ourselves with local law firms and networking with them. So, our presence in the US is to facilitate the practice of Irish law. It’s not to compete with law firms on the East or West Coast. And it is also to facilitate US businesses firms who may be looking at Ireland as a possible place for locating some part of their operations business. It’s a way of early introduction to those businesses that might establish in Ireland. So having those presences on the East and West Coast has worked out extremely well for us from a client perspective, but also in terms of building relationships with other law firms.
BF: Do you have any plans for expansion in the US? Anything else you’d like to talk about concerning William Fry, with its presence in the US or here? Tell me a little bit about your expansion.
Owen O’Sullivan: Our focus is on the East Coast where we have a financial services partners based in New York. The focus there is mostly on the financial services and private equity spaces. On the West Coast, it’s probably more broadly based, though historically, I suppose, the particular tech focus that was established on the West Coast, around San Francisco, which is now is I think becoming much more dispersed. And certainly, having met some people from Miami recently and seen the growth of tech both in Texas as well as in Florida, it is something phenomenal. We’ll be watching those, but whether we’ll be opening offices there or not is another thing. For the moment we’re happy to focus on the East Coast and the West Coast.
BF: The US is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s largest markets in terms of trade and investment. American FDI in Ireland stood at $390 billion in 2020, more than the US total for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa combined. For what reasons has Ireland maintained its position as an attractive destination for investment, and what kind of new opportunities are we seeing that foreign investors might be interested in?
Owen O’Sullivan: Ireland is very proud of its connections with the US and we nurture those connections very carefully. There are a lot of Americans that have connections with Ireland and associate with Ireland for one reason or another. We leverage off those for sure, but more fundamentally from a business perspective, we are particularly well located and, physically, we’re the country in the EU that is the most proximate to the US. We are English speaking. We have, despite Brexit, very well-established trading connections with the UK. We have a very educated workforce. We have a stable government, and we have a lot of things going for us. And, historically, we would’ve had a particular tax regime that some businesses would’ve found attractive. That, as a single advantage, has now been completely neutralized. Certainly, we surveyed tech and data companies in 2016-2017 on reasons why they were located in Ireland. At that time, tax was the number one reason. We did the same research and updated it in 2020-2021, and tax was down at number eight as the reason why those businesses are either located here or choose to remain here. And the things that were much higher up the list were the stability of the regulatory regime, proximity to Europe, educated workforce, English language, those sorts of things, which frankly are much more grounded. This means that those businesses tend to be much more deeply rooted in Ireland.
BF: You stepped up as managing partner of William Fry in 2020 at a very interesting time, given recent crises. Before that, you were a partner and head of litigation and dispute resolution for 21 years! What are your current top three priorities as managing partner, and what vision do you have for the firm in the next five to ten years?
Owen O’Sullivan: The priorities are to reshape the business, to understand the things that clients are looking for from a professional services firm and, particularly, a law firm. We want to refine how we present those, present what we are good at, and what we offer to our clients, and to connect with our clients in terms of what it is they are looking for from a professional services firm. So what we deliver and how we deliver are critically important.
Our people are also very important. The last two years have underlined how important it is to stay connected with our people and to understand what their needs and desires are and how to match the work-life-work balance desires at the same time as providing progression within professional careers. And not just in legal, but we have various tax professionals and other professionals working within the business. Making sure that they feel that they can have a progressing career within a rapidly changing working environment is key. And, last but not least, is around how we connect as a responsible business with our communities and with our environment. That’s becoming very important, particularly to our juniors; and the more we speak to the youngest generation, who are very articulate and aren’t behind the door at all about what’s important to them, the more we take that in. I think if we have any hope of providing the number one sustainable careers and jobs for them within the structure of professional services, but also frankly, preserving, from a societal perspective, where we are and reorganizing our responsibilities to the environment and society, we must engage with those things far more than we might have in the past. To understand what it is we need to do to last for another 175 years as a business, or even the next 25, they’re probably the big things for the next number of years.
BF: Are there any other milestones or achievements that you’d like to have on record before we close the interview?
Owen O’Sullivan: Apart from our 175-year anniversary, which was something that we are very proud of, we are one of just two Irish law firms that have achieved accreditation from businesses in the community, something which is a very broadly focused responsible business initiative. It took a lot of work to get that accreditation. It’s something that you have to maintain. Although we may have had the accreditation for three years, you still get audited along the way. So, we have to keep our standards up; we can’t drop them. But having that sort of responsible focus for the business helps us focus on business performance and making sure that we are generating enough revenue and or profit to sustain the kind of investment that the firm needs to be able to do what it does and provide careers for all of the people that it has. They’re the big challenges, but BITC is a great framework within which to aim for that.