Brexit will not change London and the UK’s position as a global leader in legal services, a City lobby group has predicted.
Launching a report today highlighting the international nature of London’s commercial courts and its attraction for foreign law firms, TheCityUK said revenue at the top 100 firms grew by 10% last year to reach £24.2bn.
The UK trade surplus generated by legal services has nearly doubled over the past 10 years to £4.4bn in 2017.
The report found that 78% of claims issued in the admiralty and commercial courts involved at least one party whose address was outside England and Wales, while all the parties involved were international in 51% of cases.
There were over 200 foreign law firms with offices in the UK, and the number of fee-earners in the largest 50 foreign firms in London was over 6,200 last year, an increase of about 200 on the previous year.
The number of foreign-qualified lawyers dipped slightly last year to just under 1,200, but the CityUK said this was partly because foreign law firms were “developing their in-market capacity as clients ask them to conduct contentious work requiring English-qualified lawyers”.
The lobby group said Latham & Watkins had added 40 English-qualified fee earners to its ranks in the last financial year alone.
“The presence of large international law firms, those which have more than a third of their lawyers working outside of their home jurisdiction, is a symbol of London’s prominence as a legal hub.”
It said English law was used in 40% of all global corporate arbitrations, while over 32,800 disputes were last year resolved by alternative dispute resolution in the UK – up 27% on the previous year.
Gary Campkin, external relations and strategic issues manager at the TheCityUK, said: “Global businesses have a choice on where to resolve their legal disputes. They choose the UK for a number of reasons: the clarity and predictability of English law, the UK’s independent and expert judiciary, and the efficient functioning of UK courts.
“Brexit will not change this. London and the UK will continue to provide unrivalled access to high quality legal services. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is vital to ensure international parties continue to recognise the benefits of using English law and draw upon the expertise of the UK’s legal services sector.”
Despite the CityUK’s optimism, Jonathan Djanogly, former justice minister and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal and Constitutional Affairs , told the House of Commons last week  that law firms and their clients were already “sadly, beginning to implement contingency plans” and move business away from the UK.
Meanwhile the Bar Council has been briefing barristers to prepare for the “genuine risk” of a no-deal Brexit.
Even if the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement is backed by Parliament next month, barristers were reminded that the shape of any agreement on professional services was “extremely uncertain”.
The Bar Council said in new guidance  that barristers specialising in traditional EU or international practice areas – such as competition, state aid, public procurement, migration, intellectual property and insolvency – “were likely already to be well informed”.
However, those active in “less obviously EU-related areas of law” such as family, personal injury and crime, were warned to consider the impact of a no-deal Brexit in any cases where key individuals, such as victims and witnesses, were in an EU member state.
“Practitioners who are active in fields where (much) of the law applied domestically is derived from EU law, even if any particular case has no cross-border element per se, should be informing themselves of the extent to which the law may change upon, or after, Brexit.
“Here, one thinks of consumer protection, employment and discrimination, health and safety, and environmental protection, to name but a few.
“The same is true for those practising in fields which have been overseen by an EU regulator, since domestic arrangements to replace those are far from settled.
“Practitioners involved in cases which, though domestic, may result in judicial decisions, be they interim or final, that need to be recognised or enforced in an EU member state, should also be aware of the impact of no deal.”
The Bar Council added that even though the intention of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was to import EU law wholesale into UK law on Brexit day, such measures would be subject to amendment, in many cases by statutory instrument.
“This legislative structure inevitably gives rise to widespread uncertainty as to the likely amendments and repeals that will be made in a no-deal situation.”