Niall is a senior partner and head of the competition and antitrust team at Mason Hayes & Curran. He is a graduate of University College Dublin and Cambridge University. Niall is ranked in the top tier of Irish competition advisers by the main legal directories. He was also identified by GCR as one of the world’s top antitrust lawyers under the age of 40 in GCR’s “40 under 40” feature. He is currently advising on the two major competition investigations by the Irish competition commission (into the ticketing and motor insurance sectors respectively) and on a relatively rare phase II case before the Irish competition regulator. He is also advising on the follow-on action before the Irish courts arising from the European Commission’s decision in the Trucks case.
What inspired you to practise competition law?
I enjoyed competition law as an undergraduate, but even more so as a postgraduate under the late Dan Goyder at Cambridge. Dan combined remarkable intelligence with an innate ability to encourage. He could make the complex appear simple, non-academic and applicable to the “real world”, and that approach really resonated with me. I was also toying with the idea of becoming an IP lawyer for a time, but my mind settled during the formative years of my career with the competition team at Ashurst, under the tutelage of Nigel Parr and Roger Finbow.
What do clients look for in an effective competition lawyer?
Law firms frequently speak about strategy being driven by the need to understand and meet client needs. While being conditioned for high client expectation is a given, client needs can of course be varied. I think the best and most enduring lawyer/client relationships are built on a foundation of investing time to understand the technical and commercial landscape in which a client operates, and trying to develop the same industry-specific business nous as a client. Our role as lawyers – and not just competition lawyers – has clearly evolved from traditional legal adviser to strategic business partner, inside and outside our core practice areas.
You also need to be able to tell your client, clearly, what you think they need to hear from you, even though sometimes it’s not always what they want to hear. Clients also need to be fully confident that whatever decision you make, you are making it with their best interests in mind; that you are always “in their corner”.
The growth and success of your firm’s competition practice over the past number of years has been particularly impressive. What do you put that down to?
There are myriad reasons. Our philosophy is very much centred on our people and ensuring we provide a platform for them to grow in their roles. Our firm has an entrepreneurial ethos in its blood. We at once empower team members, at all levels, to develop their expertise; to build their brand; and to step out of their comfort zones. We commit to a particular course and we are not afraid to make mistakes along the way.
Our management has played a central role, buying into what we are trying to achieve and into our roadmap for getting there.
Fundamentally, it has been driven by our clients. We pride ourselves on trying to achieve the best outcomes for clients. Everything we have achieved to date would simply not have happened without the clients who choose to support us.
What do you think about the recent Franco-German proposals to potentially soften and/or politicise competition enforcement in the EU?
Not a lot. If implemented, I would see a real risk of benefit to a few (big companies) to the detriment of the many and an undermining of free and fair competition and competitive markets in the EU. I, like many, value the predictability and fairness of the much copied and admired current EU system, which is the creature of tried, tested and sound legal and economic analysis. Further, applying different rules to European champions will never be the right economic or policy approach.
What are the emerging competition trends in Ireland?
Fewer mergers are being notified due to a sensible increase in the applicable financial thresholds. A new simplified merger review procedure is, thankfully, on the horizon. Antitrust investigations are longer-running and more complex. We are witnessing the genesis of major follow-on actions before the Irish courts, and we are adopting a wait-and-see approach in terms of how the ECN+ Directive will be implemented in the jurisdiction. Further, the penny has finally dropped with our government that investing in our unified competition and consumer protection regulator is money well spent.
What is your proudest achievement to date?
No contest here – our two beautiful little daughters, Caitlin and Chloe.