In a feature on Ulster Business Magazine Paul Tweed talks about the state of the Northern Ireland legal economy and how his firm has prospered in tough times; international mediation and then his specialisation, media law.
You’d be forgiven for thinking one who does would be working behind a mahogany desk in a palatial office in Los Angeles or London, his every call screened by an army of assistants.
Instead, Paul Tweed, the senior partner of Johnsons Solicitors, works from a functional building on Belfast’s Wellington Place, which, on the unusually hot day I meet him, has the windows wide open to the traffic noise below to keep cool. His direct line rings at regular intervals. He pours his own coffee. And the desk is so covered in papers I can’t guess what it’s made of, but I’d bet its not mahogany.
The surroundings, though perfectly pleasant, reflect an ethos which has helped Tweed to build up an international reputation as a mediator and media lawyer specialising in defamation, privacy, piracy and IP issues.
Utilising Belfast’s lower cost base has allowed him to create a thriving firm over the past 20 years which now has offices in London and Dublin, and a base in California.
“What we have found is that we can run highly specialist practices in London and Dublin supported by a much cheaper cost base in Belfast, which together with multi-jurisdictional qualified lawyers has given us a very strong competitive edge,” he says.
“Keep the overheads down, make sure you get the expertise here that can match the best in the world, but keep your base here. It’s a model in my view that every firm in the North should be looking at very closely.”
Johnsons has only a handful of employees in its London and Dublin offices but they are supported by more than 60 people in Belfast, with lawyers brought in when required. In a time of declining fee income and more competitive tendering processes, keeping a tight rein on expenditure and, crucially, having a niche specialism, means it can “take the big boys on in certain areas”.
“Intellectual property is one of the areas where we’ve made a lot of progress in London because we can do it far more cost effectively than other law firms. All our solicitors are multi-jurisdictionally qualified so I can act in Northern Ireland, the Republic and England & Wales,” explains Tweed.
“The downside is you spend a bit of time travelling but it is worth it. It is the only model that can work and it has stood us in good stead. When the downturn came, while we are feeling the pinch like everyone else, it hasn’t affected us as much as others.”
In the last year Johnsons has received instruction to act on this side of the Atlantic for the founder of Blackberry, the inventor of video game Grand Theft Auto, and one of America’s largest multinationals.
“That says to me that being based in Belfast is not a disadvantage when it comes to attracting work,” he adds.On international mediation:
"Another area where Belfast should be able to turn a former weakness into a strength is international mediation.
Tweed is involved in a new venture due to launch at the end of June called International Mediation & Arbitration Services (IMAS), which will offer international cross border mediation and arbitration services to parties around the world. IMAS will partner with Jams International, the largest provider of mediation services in the US.
“Our service is based on the fact that Northern Ireland mediated its way out of the Troubles,” he explains.
“We’re trying to encourage American companies who are in dispute with European companies to take the neutral venue in the geographically handy location of Northern Ireland. We will purely do cross-border, high value commercial contractual disputes.”
The European Union recently introduced a directive mandating that all cross border disputes are mediated before they are litigated, which is expected to herald a wave of mediation.
Countries such as Norway, Switzerland, Spain and Italy are already gaining reputations for mediation, but Tweed believes that by leveraging his own contacts in California, and having the backing of a high profile panel of mediators including US Senator George Mitchell, Lord Brian Mawhinney and Jonathan Powell, Belfast can compete.
He says IMAS has a number of potential mediations waiting in the wings and will be prepared to proactively go after companies in situations that would benefit from mediation, rather than letting work come to them.
“We’ve got to establish Belfast as a specialist centre for major international disputes where people have seen that with the patience and expertise to get ourselves out of this mess we can do it for other countries and major companies,” says Tweed.
“The US has a lot of conflict resolution centres around the world but they are now regarded as anything but neutral. We’re saying bring us in and looking at all possible angles to give us an edge against the competition.”On Media Law:
"Of course Paul Tweed is best known for his media work, most of which now comes from Dublin and London.
He built his reputation on successfully winning libel cases such as the infamous cream bun story (where two senior counsels were wrongly reported as having fought over the last eclair in a Holywood cake shop), and the dispute between boxer Barry McGuigan and his former manager Barney Eastwood. The latter led on to work for a US attorney and in turn to cases for famous clients including Sylvester Stallone and Liam Neeson.
Although Tweed freely admits some newspapers he’s acted against still refuse to print his name, he has also represented many media outlets, and estimates some 30% of his clients on the claimant side are journalists rather than A-list stars.
Drawing on his experience the lawyer this year wrote his first book Privacy and Libel Law: The Clash with Press Freedom, published by Bloomsbury.
With a new Defamation Bill announced in last month’s Queen’s Speech designed to protect freedom of speech and the Leveson Enquiry on press standards ongoing, the publication of the book is certainly timely.
In the book Tweed analyses how Britain and America have grown so far apart on free speech, and the changing legal landscape relating to the laws of defamation and protection of privacy.
He argues that statutory regulation or another viable alternative to the Press Complaints Commission is vital, not only in terms of controlling the conduct of the press, but also for providing a realistic alternative to expensive litigation.
His views have been described as “polemic” and “highly contentious” by some reviewers but the book has also received praise from other journalists and court room opponents who acknowledge that many of the points he has raised demand closer consideration.
The debate over libel continues to evolve due to the increasing ubiquity of the internet and as last year’s super-injunction case demonstrated, the laws governing the mainstream press are not always easily applicable to online publishing.
“The internet is one of our biggest battlefields and is very difficult. We’ve set up NetLibel.com which is a take-down service that keeps the cost down for companies and individuals who have been libelled online. We’ll send take-down letters and advice on it, but it is a very hard area,” Tweed says.
“While the Americans decide to protect what they regard as free speech and allow these ISP’s to publish from dot com websites, it is very difficult to actually enforce.”
With some substantial settlements coming through and the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter now answerable to EU privacy law through their Dublin operations, this is changing, albeit slowly.
On the flipside, brand protection is much harder to enforce in the UK than in the US, according to the solicitor.
Tweed, whose firm is acting for several large corporates in this area, says the big problem lawyers face is that there are less stringent image protection laws here.
“It is a big problem for corporate brands, particularly in the internet age where a lot of American companies are exposed here. Quite often the only option is my speciality of defamation. For the sake of argument if an image is used to advertise something that the person in question would not morally agree with, then we can take action. But there is no fundamental right like there is in America,” he explains.
Guarding against the plagiarism of a corporate brand or a rival using a similar brand for a similar product is something more Northern Ireland based companies need to get on top of, he believes.
“There is a big difference between those companies here who are aware of their rights and also are making sure they protect the brand proactively rather than reactively when something happens,” stresses Tweed.
“There is still a major section of corporations every year that aren’t taking the steps they need to take to pre-empt a problem. Pre-emption is better than a cure in so far as brand protection and the internet is concerned. In the US they are totally switched on to that. I’m not sure we are here.”Read the interview and feature on Paul Tweed and his firm, Johnsons Solicitors here.