A tale of Brexit: securing our home in the EU

Sean Cummings of European Intellectual Property firm, Keltie, explains why they set up in Galway in advance of Brexit.

European integration has brought together peoples and cultures. It has enriched us with diversity. Now, we can live and work as easily in Dubrovnik as in Dublin. But soon, will it be as simple to do business in London as it is in Limerick? Until the terms of Brexit are agreed, nobody knows.

We may not like Brexit, but we can’t ignore it. This is the story of what my business has done in advance of Brexit so far.

First, a bit of background.

Not very long ago, it was insanely complex and expensive to protect inventions and brands across Europe. Separate applications were needed in each country, which relied on their own laws and languages. There was duplication and waste on a huge scale.

The European Patent Office (EPO) was launched in the 1970s as the first step to solving the problem. It was followed in the 1990s by the EU trade mark system, administered by the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). Now, a client can file a single European patent application and it can get a single trade mark registration that covers the whole of the EU. This saves a fortune.

European Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys like me act before the EPO and the EUIPO, rather like barristers or solicitors act before a court. As we’re based all over Europe, some say that we’re the first European profession.

Clients from around the world use firms like ours, Keltie, to protect their IP rights in Europe. We compete with other firms, not just in the UK but in other European countries, to attract clients from outside Europe, for example the US and China. English-speaking firms like Keltie have an advantage in attracting that kind of work. Down the years, it’s become a significant part of our business. 

In June 2016, the UK’s Brexit referendum changed everything. 

It felt like a sudden bereavement, not just in business terms but also on a personal level. After all, I work with people from many different countries who chose to make their home in London. And I have dual Irish/UK nationality myself.

Still stunned, we gathered for a partners meeting that morning and finished off a press release we’d hoped never to use. The message to our clients: it’s business as usual until Brexit actually happens, and it won’t happen for at least two years. So no need to worry.

But to be honest, we had plenty to worry about.

The UK’s departure from the EU could, eventually, end our qualification to act before the EUIPO. That could see our EU-related business go up in smoke.

Our competitors in the EU were already, gleefully, telling clients that there was no longer any point in using UK firms. So, we couldn’t just wait for Brexit to happen and then react to it: by then our EU work could have gone. We needed to do something positive, and we needed to do it quickly.

As an English-speaking, common-law jurisdiction, Ireland makes a lot of sense as a destination for UK lawyers seeking to stay in the EU. You may have heard that hundreds of English solicitors have already paid their fees for automatic entry onto the Irish roll. 

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple in the IP world.

The trouble is that in order to represent clients fully before the EUIPO, you have to be an EU national qualified in trade marks in an EU state. Which the UK soon won’t be. Also, you have to have a genuine place of business in the EU.

So, it was down to me, as I’m lucky to have Irish nationality. Also, as my family is from Galway and I’ve had a home in Connemara for some years, it was natural for me to look beyond Dublin. I could see that the West of Ireland has an incredible innovation culture, from start-ups to multinationals.

I proposed to my partners that we should set up an office not just in Ireland but specifically in Galway.

This wouldn’t just protect our EU work; it would also allow us to offer businesses in the West the world-class local service they deserve.

We made the decision in July last year and opened for business in Galway on the 1st of September, just six weeks later.

This was only made possible by the business network that’s one of Galway’s greatest strengths.

Coincidentally, Keltie has banked with AIB in the UK for many years. So I picked up the phone to our bank manager and she introduced me to a colleague of hers, Johnny O’Dwyer, who was on the board of the PorterShed. And Johnny introduced me to Niamh Costello at GTC, Mary Rodgers at the PorterShed and Conor O’Dowd at KPMG, who was then the President of the Galway Chamber. Then Conor introduced me to Maeve Joyce at the Chamber. And on it went. Everyone was incredibly welcoming, even when I pretended that my English accent is actually from East Galway…

Special mention also to IDA Ireland, who recognised what a firm like ours could bring to the innovation community in the West. They’ve supported us from the beginning. We intend to repay their faith by creating a significant business in Galway with local recruits.

We took a space at GTC and also signed up as a Corporate Member at the PorterShed. Initially I was based in the Cube at GTC while we were on the waiting list for a private office space. We moved into our current office at GTC in March, where we have room now to recruit and expand.

It was a big attraction that the terms in GTC are so flexible. As our needs develop, we can move within GTC if we wish and become fully established before making a longer-term property commitment.

Another key point is the spirit of togetherness that’s been nurtured not just at GTC and the PorterShed but also among the wider business community in Galway.

It’s been great to work around such energy and to contribute whatever we can to it. As part of that, it was a privilege to join the Why Galway? delegation to London and to host an event at our office there.

So how has it gone for us in Galway so far? Well, we’ve been delighted to meet and to start working with some great Irish businesses. Also, I’m pleased to say that work is still flowing in to our firm from outside the EU. As an added bonus, our overseas clients are sending us work specifically for the Irish market. And as the final element of Brexit-proofing our business, I’ve just qualified as a Registered Trade Mark Agent in Ireland – my first exam in more than twenty years!

On a personal level, it’s been a joy for me, a mere blow-in, to welcome my colleagues from Keltie to Galway. They’ve fallen in love with the place, its people and their way of doing business. I’m so proud to call Galway my home.