It is 25 months since I last met Declan Black in person in the offices of Mason Hayes & Curran (MHC) on Barrow Street in the south docklands. The law firm’s office is quieter than last time; many of its 540 staff are still working partly from home. But, as we walk along a sixth-floor corridor, there is still a string of ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs on offices as teams of lawyers go about the daily work of arbitration meetings and client consultations.

Black leads me into a corner meeting room with views of the Aviva glistening in the early February sunlight. Black is in his third term as managing partner of the law firm, a role he has held since 2014, although he admits the last two years have been a “rollercoaster” with a pandemic and rolling restrictions.

MHC turned 50 on February 26, 2020, an event the law firm marked in a packed Mansion House with Black, an experienced litigator, grilling the former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow on everything from Brexit to Boris Johnson. Bercow had been in good form, making witty jokes but making serious points too.  For example, in relation to the fractious standard of political debate in Britain, he argued that “democracy is not about decibels”.

It was a good-humoured affair, but I remember chatting to a leading corporate financier at the back of the room. He had some investments in Asia, so was more clued into what was unfolding. “This China thing is looking pretty serious,” he whispered. “Let’s hope it burns out before it gets here.”

For many of those in the Round Room that night, it would be the last time they would meet in person in such numbers for close to two years.


“Pretty grim.” That is how Declan Black describes April and May 2020. “There was this sense of impending economic crisis externally building, and then from the 12th of March nothing new came in,” he said.

MHC is owned by its partners, so like most professional services firms in Ireland, it was facing a sudden cash crunch. “There was a desperate dive in activity in Q2 of 2020, and that continued into a bit of Q3, but then it started not to be as bad and we began to find our feet,” he said.

From expecting to grow in 2020, suddenly it was about surviving. “I think the collective understood what we had to do,” Black said. “If you come into a crisis with a reasonably high sense of trust within the organisation then they understand. It is very important to be clear about what you are doing, and why. The other big thing is senior people led by example in terms of taking significant cuts.”

For more than six months, business was slow although sectors with less exposure to the pandemic such as energy and multinationals continued to provide work. “In the fourth quarter of 2020 there was a pick-up,” Black said. “At the start of any pick-up you’re never sure if it is just a blip, but by the end of that quarter, you knew things were coming back. Looking back, big capital worked out probably at the end of the third quarter that vaccinees were going to prevent an absolute catastrophe.”

The delivery of the first vaccine to a grandmother in Britain in December 2020, he said, was the real start of a return in confidence. “Big capital worked it out,” he said. “They’re fantastic at harnessing all the information available and being forward-looking about it. Once that happened it started to drive transactional recovery.”

Money wanted to invest, buy and sell again. Black said the pick-up that started in MHC’s corporate practice rolled into real estate and financial services. “It accelerated through the course of 2021,” he said. “Law firms are reflections of the economy to some extent. You have got to be ready to catch that wave (of recovery) when it comes. We were fortunate that we had very good people, and we could connect to that.”

Law in a time of Covid

“You want people to know that if it is tough, we will hang together, as we will when it comes good again.”

Litigation is a big part of what MHC does, and it was one of the areas hardest hit by the recession.

“To push contentious matters to a conclusion you need the discipline of here is the decision date or at least here is the hearing date on a preliminary issue something to get the attention of the protagonists to say what are we going to do to finish this dispute,” he said. “Most disputes end up settling but the pressure of an ultimate adjudication be that a court or a tribunal drives that resolution.”

Covid-19 changed that dynamic as sittings were delayed leading to cases languishing. “It is often in one sides’ interest not to push it along,” Black said. “That really impacted us but it too picked up from the first quarter of 2021.”

A recent analysis of data from Vizlegal by The Currency showed that MHC is the most active law firm by some distance in terms of incoming cases. Gradually things turned and then accelerated. The firm finished 2021 with a 23 per cent surge in fee income to €98 million with every practice area gaining ground. “This has never happened before to me as a managing partner, and I don’t think it has happened to my predecessors either,” Black said.

“It was a swoosh shaped recovery as we went down and then we shot right back up.” From a management perspective, he said the rebound had caused a “scramble” for talent between Irish law firms and overseas ones. To retain and motivate staff another challenge was to ensure that this was shared around the firm.

“In the middle of 2021 we said we would pay a special bonus at the end of the year linked to our increase in turnover,” he said, adding that €2 million was put in a bonus pot to be shared pro-rata across its team. “You want people to know that if it is tough, we will hang together, as we will when it comes good again.”

The future of work, inflation and inequality

MHC increased its staff numbers by 7 per cent in 2021 to 540 people. This according to the Law Society Gazette moved MHC up one position to be Ireland’s fourth biggest law firm as measured by practising solicitors. It has pulled slightly ahead of McCann FitzGerald by this measure and is some distance ahead of William Fry.

Black said he hoped to grow employee numbers again by roughly the same this year. “I think good single-digit revenue growth is very achievable too,” he said, arguing that service is a differentiator in a competitive market. “We don’t have a monopoly on having lots of clever lawyers,” he said. “It is about giving the right kind of service, so the client says, ‘yeah they sort our problems’.”

On the morning of our interview, Black said he had hosted a meeting for recent entrants to the firm. “I talked to them about being consistent, relevant, quick and clear,” Black said. “Ultimately in a competitive landscape people mightn’t know your advice on say a renewable interest lease is the best advice but by god they know if you’ve answered their email quickly or returned their call.”

Black said Covid-19 had changed where lawyers in the firm worked. “It is screamingly clear that flexible working works for law firms,” he said. “The way we foresee this working is we will have as few rules as possible but there will be themes.”

For example, he said new joiners might come in more to interact with experienced lawyers as opposed to come in just to sit in front of a screen. Another example, he said, was lawyers from across practice areas coming into the office in order to work together on particular cases or client problems.

Black said his biggest concern economically was the threat of inflation. “I am not an economist, but I worry about inflation more from a societal perspective than from an economic perspective as it tends to corrode trust in democracy and promote extremist ideologies,” Black said. “When you have got an economy that is running hot that can exacerbate income inequality between the haves and the have nots.”

The social contract, he said, had been shown to be strong in Ireland during Covid-19 relative to many other countries. Black said MHC wanted to play its part in addressing inequality and that the firm had allocated 1 per cent of its income to good causes mostly focused on education and disadvantage. In January 2022 it announced a €1.2 million fund with Rethink Ireland to invest in organisations like the Galway Traveller Movement, Care After Prison, and Youth Horizons.

“Law firms tend to be really good in certain aspects of diversity and inclusion,” he said. “Lawyers tend to be interested in issues like social justice and discrimination. It is part of what motivates lots of people to choose law as a career and as a consequence, you can find that law firms are actually really good at issues like gender diversity and LGBTI,” Black said.

“It is pushing an open door. But where law firms are not as good is socioeconomic diversity. They tend to be… slightly monolithic might be too strong a word… but they are dominated by a certain class.

“A lot of us in MHC tend to have enjoyed the massive benefits of education but huge swathes of Irish society have not had that advantage. That is what underpins the rationale for our focus on education.”


Since 2020 Declan Black has cycled more than ever. It is his way of letting off steam. Seven years into being managing partner, what keeps him going? “The satisfaction is seeing talent reach its potential. Your job as a steward of the business is to try and create the environment for that. When you get talent hitting its potential and delivering for clients then you are going to continue to prosper as a law firm, even as the externalities wax and wane.”