Old world elegance is made law of the land

Published on September 23, 2007. By John Reynolds

The rest of Dublin’s legal fraternity might have decamped to shiny modern offices in the docklands and the IFSC, but Laurence Shields and his firm LK Shields have remained in the heart of Georgian Dublin.

Nineteen years ago, there were ten people, including his secretary, working for the company in just one building off Merrion Square. Now 150 people work for the firm, occupying six offices, taking up about a quarter of the buildings on one side of Upper Mount Street – and his secretary – who has worked for him since 1972 – is still there.

“We’ve been successful and have punched above our perceived weight,” is all he will reveal about the company’s turnover. He’s quite a private man; in fact the only interview he’s given before was for the Law Gazette, when he was president of the Law Society. “I prefer to keep my head down and get on with my work,” he adds.

His firm acted for Japanese investment bank Nomura earlier this month, petitioning the High Court for a provisional liquidator to be appointed to finance firm Structured Credit Company, which was a victim of the credit crunch.

Corporate law and mergers and acquisitions are the firm’s bread and butter and it’s been involved with recent deals such as Claret Capital’s joint venture with Blue Ocean Wireless, the management buyout of Calyx Group, and Dublin developer David Daly’s recent €110 million purchases on Grafton Street.

After helping the company with its fundraising, Shields also recently emerged as an investor in One51. He also invested in Conduit – now 11850, the directory enquiries company – having previously been a director, and also in software firm Mentec, which was bought by Calyx, the Dublin-based IT and communications company last year.

Shields also looks at buying other law firms from time to time. “If we think it’s the right fit, we’ll always look at them. Like all businesses, we’re always facing up to new challenges and re-inventing ourselves. The law business is very different to when I began my career 40 years ago.”

“We’ve also had several approaches from potential buyers, but we plan to grow internally and bilaterally though. I would never rule out selling the practice though, because that would be a foolish approach,” he says.

Various memberships, lectureships and other positions – at UCD, the Dublin Bar Association, the Law Society, the Takeover Panel and the Institute of Chartered Accountants – have allowed him to mix with the movers and shakers in the capital. Clearly Shields has his finger on the pulse of Irish business to some extent.

Having worked with Claret Capital, Atlantic Bridge and Mentor Capital, “there are one or two other venture capital deals in the pipeline that the firm will be involved with,” he reveals.

Things might’ve turned out a little differently for Shields though. “When I was younger, I looked up to my father, who was an accountant. However, he wasn’t happy about my going into accountancy.

So one night I changed my mind and decided to study law and Dad was much happier about it. My uncle Joseph Shields was a solicitor who had gone into the diplomatic core. He also lectured in law and he proved to be another role model for me.”

His first apprenticeship was with Tom Jackson, who worked for a firm called Orpen Franks. “He held about 17 directorships and was a very colourful character. His initial advice to me was “trust no-one and keep your mouth shut.’ I developed an interest in law and company activities and passed my exams there before joining another firm, William Fry,” he adds.

On his first day, Shields knocked on the door of the firm’s office on Burlington Road. “Nothing happened, so I went inside to the reception and then was sent in to meet Houghton Fry, who owned the firm. He finished a phone call, before throwing down the phone down onto the receiver. Although he was initially terrifying, he turned out to be entertaining and very engaging.

“One morning Houghton asked me what I knew about silver while we were walking down Baggot Street. The next thing I knew he’d bought me a book about it and he told me to read it and learn everything I could about silver from it. It was very different back then, without the internet at your fingertips.”

Shields began to get involved in mergers and acquisitions work and also lectured in law between 1972 and 1978. In 1977, he set up his own firm, Lysaght, Dockrell, Shields and Farrell, where he was a founding and senior partner with several colleagues.

“I worked there until 1988 and began reviewing everything before getting married that year. Along with two other colleagues and my secretary, I decided to set up my own law firm. I believed there was a big opening in the corporate and business arena, and that I was capable of fulfilling it. So we started off with ten people and haven’t looked back since,” he says.

“We initially occupied an office in Merrion Square, but I’ve always enjoyed working in Georgian buildings and supporting Dublin’s Georgian heritage.

Although they have a few disadvantages, they offer a good working environment. I’m not a great fan of open-plan, modern office designs, and having our own rooms in these buildings supports our private conversations and the confidentiality which our clients expect.”

As LK Shields has grown, so has the litigious business environment. “Although business regulation has increased, which is reflected in the judiciary and obviously our work as well, I think mediation will play an important part in the system in the future. There’s already a lot of it, but it obviously doesn’t attract the same publicity as a court case does, so perhaps people aren’t as aware of it,” he says.

Aswell as being associated with Nomura, his firm has also worked with BFT, a Paris-based hedge fund manager. “The legal profession has played a significant part in the growth of the capital as a financial centre. If we hadn’t upskilled, a lot of indirect employees in the professions would all be based in London or somewhere else, and the sector wouldn’t be as successful here as it has been,” he adds.

Ireland is playing to its strengths in the finance sector, despite the current credit crunch in the financial markets and the ongoing fallout of firms overexposing themselves to bad debts in the US, he claims.

“The regulators here are doing a good job by taking a flexible and proactive, but prudent approach. The underlying problem with this is that there’s been an element of greed in whoever lent the money in these cases in the first place,” he concludes.

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