Guess which industry is about to have a Brexit bonanza?

Their divorce will be a boon for lawyers.
Their divorce will be a boon for lawyers.
Image: Reuters/Jon Nazca
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There are plenty of people on the losing side of Britain’s epic decision to vote itself out of the European Union. The stock market tanked, the pound got crushed, and the political landscape is looks like the closing act of a Shakespearian tragedy.

But from crisis comes opportunity, especially for those billing by the hour for legal advice.

“In the short-term, there will be an increase in demand because there is such uncertainty,” said Guy Lougher, partner and head of the Brexit advisory team at Pinsent Masons, a British law firm.

Pinsent Masons set up its Brexit team last September to help clients manage potential fallout: Brexit clauses were put into deals and many pushed back signing dates to June 24.

Then came Friday, and the Leave vote that few had predicted would actually happen. “It was pretty busy,” Lougher said. “Everyone was in a state of shock.”

Some deals were put on hold or canceled. Clients called with a flurry of questions.

Could the owners of a massive UK infrastructure project still hire EU nationals? And if they import machinery for the project, who pays any new tariffs? Clients seeking patents wondered if they needed additional protection in the UK. (Pre-Brexit one would not need such protections.) And what happens to tariffs on commercial agreements with delivery dates in the future? Or to investigations into anti-competitive practices?

“There has been a big uptick in the number of queries,” Lougher said.

Lawyers and accountants are springing into action. Deloitte held a webinar on Friday morning to talk implications, and more than 7,000 clients joined the call. Rick Cudworth, who heads up resilience and crisis management in the UK—the title says it all—is emphasizing to clients “the need to manage any immediate financial risks, communicate with their staff, investors and markets, and make detailed and considered plans for the future their business faces.”

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty has to be invoked to start the two-year clock on divorce proceedings. The European Communities Act, under which the UK is subject to European law, also has to be repealed. Both are epically complicated ordeals (which will no doubt require many lawyers). Whether Britain is permanently crippled, or could actually benefit, depends on the shape of the trade agreements the UK negotiates.

No one wants to appear to be cashing in on the gloom and chaos post-Brexit, but lawyers and consultants certainly do appear to be working at full tilt. “Right now we are focused on client and client issues and no one is taking time out to talk about the impact on us,” said a spokesman from Clifford Chance, “though it is safe to say that we are incredibly busy at the moment.”

Ultimately, even if lawyers are seeing a post-Brexit bump in business, the long-term impact on the legal profession could be negative. If businesses start avoiding Britain, and businesses here shrink, that doesn’t help anyone.