LONDON—Lawyers from some of Britain’s largest firms are flocking to register in Ireland to protect their right to practice fully in the European Union, in case the U.K. votes to leave the bloc.
U.K. lawyers enjoy certain benefits related to EU membership, such as protection from disclosing their legal advice to clients in the event of a European Commission antitrust investigation. Their right to represent clients in EU courts also would be at stake in the event of a British exit, or “Brexit.”
The possibility of losing these benefits has jolted dozens of lawyers to sign up in Ireland ahead of the referendum on Thursday.
Ken Murphy, director-general of the Law Society of Ireland, said a record 186 U.K. lawyers had registered there this year, with dozens more applications under way. “There’s been an unmistakable surge,” he said, adding that a large majority cited the risk of a Brexit as the main trigger for their registration. By comparison, 101 U.K. lawyers were admitted in 2015, and just 51 in 2014.
“Ireland is the most obvious choice for U.K. lawyers, due to the relatively simple rules for admission to the roll of solicitors that the Law Society of Ireland operates for English solicitors,” said Becket McGrath, a partner specializing in competition law at London law firm Cooley LLP. Mr. McGrath said that while he hadn’t yet sought admission to practice in Ireland, he would do so if the U.K. voted to exit the EU on Thursday.
To register in Ireland, lawyers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland must produce proof of good standing and three character references, and pay a €300 ($ 340) fee. They then must pay an annual fee of €2,500 for the certificate that lets them practice in Ireland. The process is more complicated for lawyers in Scotland, due to its distinctive legal system.
Among those registering lawyers in Ireland ahead of the referendum are some of London’s biggest law firms, including Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, Slaughter and May, Clifford Chance LLP and Hogan Lovells International LLP. A spokeswoman for Allen & Overy LLP said a small number of lawyers there had applied for admission in Ireland, though it wasn’t a firmwide initiative.
Still, anyone hoping for an influx of top law firms into Dublin will be disappointed: Lawyers who register in Ireland don’t relinquish their right to practice in the U.K. Mr. Murphy said the majority of U.K.-based lawyers completing the process didn’t intend to set up a physical presence in Ireland.
The current arrangement between Ireland and the rest of the U.K., bar Scotland, is mutually beneficial for other reasons. When demand for legal work in Ireland declined following the 2008 financial crisis, lawyers there moved to firms in England and Wales with relative ease, Mr. Murphy said.
And while the Irish arrangement makes it straightforward for lawyers here to preserve their legal benefits in the event of a Brexit, the broader consequences of a leave vote could be more difficult to address, according to Stephen Kinsella, a member of the campaign group Lawyers-In for Britain and a partner at Sidley Austin LLP.
“Many law firms in London are only the size they are because London is a financial center,” he said, referring to the large amount of work carried out by law firms for banking and other financial clients. “Even if there’s a relatively modest downscaling [of financial services], that’s going to have a major impact.”
Write to Denise Roland at [email protected]