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Tales of the unexpected

Tales of the unexpected
Aedamar Comiskey ALL PICS: Darren Filkins Photographer

Chair of Linklaters Aedamar Comiskey

Monaghan woman Aedamar Comiskey is senior partner and chair of the ‘Magic Circle’ firm Linklaters. She speaks to Mary Hallissey about her career, the joys of doing the deal, and dealing with the unexpected.

"Just get on with it. That’s a pity, but just get on with it!” That was the advice dished out to future lawyer Aedamar Comiskey by her parents whenever things got tough as a child, growing up in a family of four sisters and one brother just outside Monaghan town.

Tales of the unexpected

Tales of the unexpected

And she has taken that solid parental advice in spades, rising to the very top of her profession as senior partner and chair of the ‘Magic Circle’ firm Linklaters, leading a legal practice of 5,000 employees worldwide.

Being the fifth child of six made her robust and resilient, Aedamar believes: “I had to fight my way, to speak up and get my voice heard,” she says.

Warm and unpretentious, Comiskey was elected Linklaters’ senior partner for a five-year term in May 2021. The 185-year-old firm has 30 offices in 20 countries, with a total of 530 partners.

Beneath Comiskey’s affable and warm exterior, one senses that a steely core, combined with iron self-discipline, have propelled this Irish lawyer to the very top of her game.

A graduate from UCD in 1988, she made a long-term commitment to Linklaters, joining as a trainee in 1992: “I’ve been at Linklaters a long time, and I really like it,” she says. The diversity of backgrounds and nationalities are what really appeals to her, as well as working with lawyers who didn’t necessarily follow the traditional route of a university law degree. “It felt like an inclusive place from the off, and that really appealed to me.”

London calling

London makes her feel unimportant, and that’s why she likes it: “It doesn’t matter what you do, or how wealthy you are, there’s always somebody who is doing something more important and more interesting. I like that – there’s great freedom in that.”

The liberty and cosmopolitanism of London is an enduring appeal, and she believes that her ‘ability to mix’ stems from her large Irish family background. “I’m very comfortable having to fit in anywhere. I find it interesting – I like that variety. I guess I’m very curious – ‘nosey’, my mother would call me!” she smiles.

She and her husband Mark Lyttle – a Dublin native, Olympian, and keen Laser sailor out of Dun Laoghaire – tried out a return to Dublin in the late 1990s. Ultimately, the bigger scale of a global city like London had too
much appeal.

“My husband wanted to give it a go, and I thought that was fair enough,” Aedamar explains in her City of London office, overlooking the Barbican.  “I was really happy here, but I felt that it was right to give that a go. I worked in A&L Goodbody for about eight months. Great people, and I still have lots of friends there. I had a great time, but I just missed Linklaters.”

Her husband continually sends her photos of properties beside the sea in Dublin, asking what she thinks. “That’s lovely, love, definitely one for when we retire,” is her response!

The call up

With two older sisters studying medicine, Comiskey initially thought she might follow in their footsteps, but hospital all-nighters held no appeal: “I thought, that’s far too much hard work!” she recalls.

Her parents wisely realised that their children could work things out for themselves: “My father was wonderful, because he said: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do in university – it’s just a discipline’, which is 100% right,” she adds.

“I was trying to work out what to put on the application form, and I decided to go and see a fortune-teller in Temple Street, in Dublin. She told me I should be a lawyer, and I thought, why not?” she laughs.

Gaily, Aedamar recalls winning a hatful of prizes at UCD law, vying with classmate and current High Court President Mr Justice David Barniville for the gold medals.

She describes her younger self as quite rebellious, but clearly with a strong streak of determination: “I was always quite good at studying. I did well in exams. Law was an interesting degree from the point of having to do so few hours. I thought: ‘This is great, 12 hours a week’!”

Aedamar enjoyed the social side of UCD. She also had time for plenty of waitressing shifts in the ‘Slow Boat’ Chinese restaurant in d’Olier Street: “I loved it!” she recalls.

Career opportunities

After graduation, she wanted to go into business and took a job for two years in management consultancy, with Andersen Consulting. The variety of working in different sectors appealed, as did the postings to Belfast and Chicago.

Eventually, Aedamar decided she was stronger at verbal reasoning and decided to go back to law – albeit she was three years behind her UCD classmates, which drove the decision to try London. She passed the New York Bar exam, but family proximity made London more appealing. Linklaters had a huge variety of trainees, from around 15 different countries: “I really liked that,” she reflects.

Aedamar lives in nearby Islington, and cycles to work in under 15 minutes, a convenience she loves. She and her husband Mark have three sons of 20, 17, and 14, and the eldest is now at university. “They’re good fun, it’s a very busy house. A little easier now they’re older. The busiest time was when they were seven, four, and one,” she muses.

Stay free

As well as her parental duties, Aedamar sees her senior partner role as a pastoral one, with a good deal of reflection about what would make the firm even better.

“As senior partner, you’re the guardian of the culture. We have values around excellence, integrity, commerciality, and diversity and inclusion – fostering excellence, but in a way that also enables people to be themselves,” she reflects. “We’re really trying to get the best out of people and support them to perform to the best of their ability. Teamwork is core to the success of our business,” she adds, particularly when helping to put together teams combining people with different strengths.

Aedamar believes that the Irish education system is second to none, and produces very strong graduates, whom she is always glad to see coming to London. “We are always delighted to get Irish grads – they do very well. Some of them stay and some go back, but it creates a strong network,” she adds, with work referred over and back ‘across the water’.

Cool under heat

As a leading corporate mergers-and-acquisitions (M&A) expert, Aedamar is clearly in that cohort that combines IQ and emotional intelligence. Prior to the senior partner job, she was global head of corporate for the entire firm, leading 2,000 people for almost six years, and she did a lot of travel. She does even more travelling now as senior partner and is on the road every two weeks.

“I also try and spend 50% of my time with clients, talking to them and getting their feed-back on how the firm is doing. Relationship-building – I’ve always loved that side of the job, and I have always been very client-orientated. I don’t do the deals anymore, but I try and see the same number of clients, because I really like that aspect of the job,” she says.

Does she miss the deals? “Of course! The adrenaline of landing a big deal – it’s hard to beat.”

If she wants to find something out, she doesn’t look it up online – instead, she asks someone. Such an outward orientation has helped her in M&A deal-making.

“A lot of it is working out what it is that both sides are trying to achieve, and then what is needed to get that done. It often doesn’t need to be contentious or hostile. It’s people trying to get to an agreed position on buying or selling something. And I always enjoy that side of it: I love the negotiation, the tactics of getting stuff done. That interests me more than black-letter law. I always say, a lot of it is common sense, especially in M&A deals.”

There’s that emotional intelligence again.

“That’s why I like being a lawyer,” she laughs. “You’re often trying to look for a compromise, to get to the end game. I find in the deals that I’ve done over the years, there are points that really matter to people and points that matter less. The key is to work that out to the satisfaction of both sides, and not to get bogged down in the small stuff,” she comments.

She cites experience as being a major factor in M&A: “You get a lot smarter about how to get things done … and how not to get bogged down or hit roadblocks late in the deal, because nobody likes that. You learn to address the big things upfront. That foresight comes with experience, with knowing the things to talk about at the outset. It’s very transactional, but I like that,” she says.

Should I stay or should I go?

On Brexit, she believes that things are now moving in a better and more collaborative direction: “The idea of being adversarial about it makes no sense at all – Europe needs to all work together.”

She also believes that New York is still quieter than it was pre-virus, while London is now coming back well: “The City is busier than it was,” she says.

Post-pandemic, there is a need to embrace flexibility, she accepts: “In my mind, there is no doubt that people work very hard at home. For me, it’s all about the culture and the glue, and for me, it’s hard to have the same collaborative culture if people don’t spend some time, face to face.”

Face-time builds rapport and bonds of trust, and makes it easier to extend the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong, she believes.

“What makes Linklaters the firm that I’ve always loved is that people do really like each other and enjoy working together,” she adds. “It’s good if people are in the office three days a week to build that glue,” she says, while focused work can easily be done at home.

“A lot of what we do is in a team, and to get that flow of information and diversity of thinking. That’s the bit you miss out on if people aren’t around. The real gems are often when you talk about things you weren’t planning to talk about,” she adds.

Train in vain

Great ideas don’t necessarily come from planned interactions so much as casual encounters, she believes. “As much as we tried to recreate the same experience during lockdown, it’s hard,” she concedes. “It’s so difficult to recreate on-the-job training – that learning by osmosis you get in the office.”

“You can’t sense people’s irritation on Zoom calls,” she notes, “and client concerns are better understood in the moment, rather than conveyed afterwards.

“It’s an important skill trainees and all young lawyers need to learn – to deal with the unexpected client calls. Often when a crisis hits and clients need you most, it’s something nobody was expecting.  How are they going to learn how to deal with that, and inspire confidence somehow? It’s very hard to learn how to deal with people when you’re sitting on your own,” she adds.

“Coping with the unexpected is all about building experience,” she concludes. “You get through it and life goes on. Things don’t go to plan, and you must deal with it in the moment. Everybody’s learning all the time. I might be good at looking calm, but that’s experience.”

Life has been unnerving over the past while, between the pandemic and war in Europe, and it’s important to know that it’s okay to be unsure, Aedamar adds.

“It doesn’t matter how senior you are, things don’t always go to plan. Success is failure turned around – I really believe that. That’s what people should really be admired and respected for – we learn a huge amount from our failures.”

I fought the law…

Juggling all the balls of family and career in the air is no doubt demanding. To relax, she watches Netflix and ‘forces’ herself to go to the gym, because exercise gives her energy. “I don’t do it because I love doing it; I do it for the effect. If I don’t exercise, I’m much more tired.”

In the difficult times, Aedamar Comiskey simply asks herself if she is doing her best, and tries to keep a positive outlook, rather than striving for perfection, which doesn’t exist. “I have had times where I’ve been very stressed and felt, ‘I’m getting nothing right’. You can make yourself feel quite bad, but it’s totally a mindset. If I’m doing my best, then at the end of the day, I can’t do more than that.

“Be proactive … you should be the most interested person in your own career, and your own life. Don’t wait for someone to tell you how to get on with it.”

Perseverance is also a virtue, she believes, and sometimes we give up too easily: “If you want to get somewhere, keep trying. If it matters to you, keep going – just go for the top job!” concludes this goal-oriented, driven, and highly impressive lawyer.

WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP: Applications are currently open for the Law Society’s Women in Leadership mentoring programme

Perhaps you have been inspired by this article to provide mentorship to a female lawyer or would like to sign up to be mentored? Female and male mentors are welcome to take part.

Mary Hallissey is a journalist at the Law Society Gazette.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.