BREXIT For British Lawyers: A Finely Presented Opportunity Or Poisoned Chalice?

“The legal profession was pretty strongly pro remain… But you look at law firm profits now and wonder to yourself, ‘Have children ever before voted against Christmas?’

– QC, Joylon Maugham[1]

Written by Annika Murison, a guest writer.
Edited by Santa Walker.

Lawyers and legal London profit from uncertainties in the law and BREXIT provides this as clients flock to solicitors for advice on post-BREXIT implications. Lawyers are also going to be in high demand to document the exit and necessary legal changes. Whether the legal community voted for BREXIT to merely profit from a surge in demand for legal services is dubious, there is an obvious opportunity for UK lawyers and legal London to profit financially from the gift that is commercial chaos ensuing from the BREXIT referendum.

“BREXIT” by Frankenstein is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Lawyers always benefit from periods of uncertainty. Most notably, magic circle firms have already begun reaping the rewards of BREXIT. Indeed, magic circle firms’ profits rose to £2.6bn in 2017[2], a rise of over a billion from 2016.[3] Although business activity is predicted to decrease following BREXIT, the demand for legal advice is increasing as lawyers lend their expertise to the many possibilities that await the European and international business community. In this uncertain atmosphere, businesses are having to make decisions based on hypothetical scenarios. If their course of action does not match the eventual reality, this will lead to more legal direction needed. Currently, law firm profits are increasing, as seen in magic circle firms raising the pay for 2,000 of their lawyers who owned shares in the business in 2017.[4] The role of the lawyer is becoming more important as professionals are of utmost want to provide the best advice in such uncertain times. This may be a case of all your birthdays and Christmases coming together, as this sudden surge in legal advice may not continue in the long term due to the possibility that commerce may move to a European hub. If this occurs this will result in a decline for legal London and UK lawyers as their expertise will no longer be relevant for dealing with the EU.

In the short term, BREXIT is the gift that keeps on giving as it is not only financially but also intellectually that lawyers are benefitting. Lawyers employed by the central government have increased by 300 in 2016.[5] More lawyers are essential to the central government as they are needed to draft new legislation and regulations. This a complex task and will be an intellectual challenge that most lawyers never have the opportunity to experience in their careers. The role of lawyers becomes more important in this atmosphere since they are relied upon to draft the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU and the world as they are no longer constrained by EU regulations internationally. Their responsibilities will concern the areas of migration, trade, UK regulations, EU funds, health and safety, and employment policies, with much of this work coming from Brussels. Although British lawyers are happily facing increasing workloads from Europe, they remain anxious over their status to work with and in Europe.

The concern is whether businesses will choose to litigate and use EU law with the safety net of the European Court of Justice, or whether the long standing and international use of English law will prevail. Thanks to the British Empire, many countries use English law as the basis for international trade deals and have common law in their own legal systems. The appeal of English law also comes from English being an international language, making a switch to using a European jurisdiction unlikely simply because of the language barrier. English law has also been used with precedent for centuries. It has a reputation for fairness which is internationally respected. However, many of the international British law firms based in London have already added branches in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe to prepare for the possibility their clients switch to European bases. It is hoped that the stability and habit of using UK law as preference for commercial trade deals will prevail post-BREXIT and that legal London remains the European hub for legal work.

Just as the future for businesses is uncertain, law firms reaction to what-if scenarios is observed in the number of magic circle firm having solicitors qualify in Ireland in the hopes of them being able to appear in European courts and work in Europe. Without the protection of the EU Lawyer Directives[6], British lawyers will no longer be able to give advice on EU and UK legal matters, nor appear in EU courts. British firms have realised the serious implications of this, as established by the 1,200 lawyers qualifying in Ireland in 2017, while in previous years the average was 50-100 lawyers becoming dually qualified.[7] This is based on the presumption that Article. 19 of the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union only requires a lawyer to be qualified in an EU member state and not a national of that country. Combined with law firms opening branches in Europe, this contingency plan to follow their clients should they desert Britain is a real threat to British law firms. After the initial upsurge in demand for legal expertise, this could be the last time Britain is such a hub legally and financially, the decline of both being a threat to legal London and British lawyers.

The fact that 1,500 top lawyers signed a letter to Theresa May urging a second referendum illustrates how they view BREXIT as a threat.[8] Losing the rights afforded by the EU Lawyers Directives and the financial market moving to Europe would cause a permanent decline in legal London. Would it still be legal London if the international British corporations are no longer mainly head quartered in London? Legal London and British lawyers are realizing that BREXIT, like a puppy, is not just for Christmas.


[1] Stefan Stern, ‘Don’T Blame Lawyers For Their Brexit Bonanza | Stefan Stern’ (The Guardian, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/16/dont-blame-lawyers-brexit-bonanza&gt; accessed 24 November 2018.

[2] Professional Services Correspondent TabKinder, ‘City Lawyers Reap Brexit Pay Bonanza’ (Thetimes.co.uk, 2018) <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/business/city-lawyers-reap-brexit-pay-bonanza-wm692f7b0&gt; accessed 24 November 2018.

[3] Natasha Bernal, ‘Financial Results 2017: The Magic Circle Has Been Redrawn’ (The Lawyer | Legal insight, benchmarking data and jobs, 2018) <https://www.thelawyer.com/magic-circle-redrawn/&gt; accessed 29 November 2018.

[4] i.b.i.d.

[5] ‘The Role Of The Lawyer In Brexit’ (Sellickpartnership.co.uk, 2018) <https://www.sellickpartnership.co.uk/blog/2018/01/the-role-of-the-lawyer-in-brexit&gt; accessed 24 November 2018.

[6] Lawyers Services Directive 77/249/EC

[7] Silvia Borrelli, ‘Brexit Steals Magic From UK Law Firms’ (POLITICO, 2018) <https://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-uk-financial-law-firms-magic-circle-eu-city-of-london/&gt; accessed 25 November 2018.

[8] Lisa Carroll, ‘UK’s Top Lawyers Urge Theresa May To Back Second Brexit Vote’ (the Guardian, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/nov/05/uks-top-lawyers-urge-theresa-may-to-back-second-brexit-vote&gt; accessed 25 November 2018.

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