WE do a lot of negotiation in this business. If you’re a disputes lawyer, or a corporate or finance or real estate lawyer, a lot of your job is negotiating deals for your clients to get them the best terms. We can often be judged on how well or not you succeed in that.
Going back to my Clifford Chance days, my mentor Neil Harvey was a brilliant negotiator. Before every negotiation he asked his client what really mattered and what didn’t matter.
In the past I’ve seen people trying to win everything. You can get caught up in thinking everything is important but what he was saying was that for some clients, three or four or five things really matter and you need to understand those. Everything you do on that deal has to revolve around getting them the best deal. And the five or six or seven other things that other clients might care about can be traded if your client doesn’t care about them.
You’ve got to work out what your client wants and often it’s a handful of things.
I’ve had that lesson at an early stage. Negotiating is something I like doing and that was one of the key lessons.
“The other area of growth is around cybersecurity and privacy. The technology and innovation team here is very engaged in dealing with cyber risk and I suppose the explosion in data creation by the tech companies has been a boon for our team here.”
Asked about buying other law firms, he won’t rule anything out. “We’re always looking for opportunities whether it’s to open an office in the US or make judicious hirings,” Devereux adds.
The Laois native (54) spent many years working on corporate transactions before being elected managing partner nearly three years ago. It was a steep learning curve in the early days, but a challenge that Devereux relished.
“The job of a managing partner is to lead a firm and set a direction for the firm with the partners, and to be crystal clear about where you’re going and how you get there. My job is to create the environment where people want to do their best and encourage them to do that. I learned a lot about people and dynamics and getting the best out of people,” says Devereux, who wanted to take the job because he felt he could make a greater contribution as leader.
Many lawyers come from families with legal backgrounds, but not him. Instead it was the US fictional television series The Paper Chase — tracing the lives of students at Harvard Law School — that made him want to enter the profession.
Becoming a barrister didn’t appeal; helping businesses do deals excited him more than bringing cases to trial and so he became a solicitor, qualifying in the late 1980s. The Irish economy was a mess and so like most of his class Devereux emigrated, in his case to London, where he ended up working for Clifford Chance.
After seven years, he moved to work in the firm’s Singapore office, which helped fuel his love of technology. “Singapore is the size of Laois but yet it moved from being an agrarian society 50 years ago with no natural resources, to becoming a huge trading port and making the most of what they had by investing in R&D and innovation and technology,” says Devereux.
“I see a lot of parallels with Ireland, which is on the western periphery of Europe but now making a lot out of the resources we have.
“If I’m to say why am I so fascinated with technology, some of it has to be traced back to what I could see could be done by that advanced thinking.”
Devereux has his ear close to the ground in the Irish business world and has noticed a number of trends emerging in recent times. One is an increasing acceptance of venture capital and private equity, which is helping businesses grow to a greater scale before selling out to multinationals.
“We’ve acted on many deals where a US or an Israeli company has come in and bought an Irish company for €50m-€100m. Mostly the reason for selling is that the indigenous firm hasn’t the resources to scale up.
“While we’ve made a lot of progress with those businesses and obviously they’ve been clients of ours, it is a source of concern that we are selling out the companies at an earlier stage.”
Another trend Devereux notes that might help with that is the return of the IPO market – led this year by AIB and Greencoat Renewables. A third is the emergence of alternative lenders like Broadhaven or Bluebay.
Change is afoot, too, in the construction sector due to the shortage of completed investment properties.
Institutional investors are now getting involved with projects at the development stage as they search for yield, while an uplift in regulatory investigations from the likes of the Central Bank or the European authorities has also been a boon to the firm.
Inside Mccann, the types of people the business is hiring is also evolving. “In the past we would traditionally have hired law students or arts students but now in the last few years we have people whose degrees are in music, technology, engineering and psychology. We’re mixing up the backgrounds because all the studies show and our own experience shows that the more diverse the input, the better the product you have.”
Brexit presents another challenge, with law firms like Pinsent Masons and DLA Piper outlining plans to set up a presence here, while a huge number of solicitors from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have sought entry to the Irish roll of solicitors. Is Devereux concerned about this competition?
“If there’s a migration as there will be of financial services clients coming to Ireland because of Brexit, and we’re seeing a lot of that, it’s to be expected that the big law firms who service those clients out of London won’t simply be happy to pass them over to Irish law firms.
“So I think you will see some judicious hiring by these firms of lawyers in the financial services space. I don’t see them having huge operations but I would imagine they’ll want to have a capability to service those clients in conjunction with us.
“Am I concerned? I would say we’re taking note of what’s happening and our job is to continually ensure that we are providing the best service. Competition brings out the best in you and it’s bringing out the best in us.
“We have to continually come back to reinvent ourselves, which is where technology I think is for us a differentiator. And we feel we’ve made a lot of ground in the last two years.”
Devereux is entering the third year of his four-year term as managing partner and before too long his fellow partners in Mccann will pass their judgment on whether his technology drive has been a success.
For now, he just wants to stay on the journey.