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Dealing with change and upheaval

Dealing with change and upheaval
Management consultant Ciaran Fenton Pic: Cian Redmond

Change is the only constant for general counsel, conference hears

The definition of a lawyer in Ireland is determined by membership of a professional representative body such as the Law Society, legal advisor Patrick Ambrose told this year’s Law Society In-house and Public Sector conference on 8 November at Blackhall Place. But this approach isn’t shared across Europe, he added.

Patrick pointed out that Ireland doesn’t differentiate between in-house and private practitioners, but acknowledges lawyers by their membership of their relevant national association.

Dealing with change and upheaval

Dealing with change and upheaval
Mark Cockerill of eir Pic: Cian Redmond

He said that Ireland was lucky to have an integrated and well-functioning Law Society that feeds into the work of the Council of Bars and Law Societies in Europe (CCBE) in defending the independence of lawyers and the rule of law.

The CCBE is backing European Council plans for a European convention on the profession of lawyer.

Defending lawyers

The importance of defending lawyers as they do their jobs was amply illustrated at the conference by former legal counsel for Irish Water, Jenny Fisher. Irish Water was the subject of public protests against water-meter installation throughout 2015.

This led to a pressurised environment but, despite that, Fisher said there wasn’t a single time when the senior management team turned on each other, which was the greatest endorsement of the people working at Irish Water.

'No one can lead unless they fully engage with their own and others' feelings

She described Irish Water as the best job she ever had, despite a volatile external atmosphere at the time. Though the role was filled with change and upheaval, the relationships in the organisation were strong enough that no one ever ‘lost the rag’, Fisher said.

“Change and upheaval were really happening to us,” she explained. “A lot of it was outside our control, and we were reacting to that. People were under horrendous personal pressure.”

Despite potential difficulties such as these, Mark Cockerill (chair of the In-house and Public Sector Committee and the director of legal services at eir) said that general counsel (GC) were in a very privileged position and could have hugely satisfying careers.

 Higher satisfaction

“I think the general level of career and personal satisfaction is higher in-house,” Cockerill said, pointing out that many GCs become CEOs.

GCs, however, must never forget that they are officers of the court first and business people second. “You are different,” leadership consultant Ciaran Fenton told the gathered general counsel, urging them to tell their businesses to behave and do the right thing.

Fenton has worked extensively with private practice and in-house lawyers, and said that, when they go in-house, lawyers bring their legal know-how to a business with a profit motive.


But when the lawyer’s purpose becomes unmoored because of that profit motive, there is increased risk. GCs are core to a business, he said – yet one step removed – because they get to apply the legal position to the business proposition.

He advised the addition of an appendix to employment contracts that recognises that GCs are different and that they cannot be business people first and lawyers second.

'GCs are core to a business – yet one step removed

If in-house lawyers are not motivated by financial incentives, they can keep a cooler head, Fenton believes – but lawyers should always be paid enough to take the issue of money off the table.

Personality types

Seána Cunningham (director of enforcement and anti-money-laundering at the Central Bank) observed that we tend to gravitate towards those who are like us, but that this can be counterproductive in work situations where diversity of thought is so important. She emphasised the importance of challenge in the context of diversity. 

Robert Heron (GC at Dunnes Stores) spoke about the importance of building a diverse team that represents all personality types, which were explored in an address by consultant Pádraig Ó Máille (which will be covered in a forthcoming Gazette article).

“You can have a majority of people you like on a team, but it is really good human resources’ practice to have a mix of personality types,” Ó Máille explained.

Clanwilliam general counsel Ronan Lennon observed that, in business, there are two types of people – those who ask for forgiveness, and those who ask for permission.

Communication breakdown

Solicitor Helen Martin (director of regulation at the Charities Regulator) spoke about the importance of conscious communication. Different communication styles were debated.

“I feel there is an automatic rush to communicate,” Robert Heron responded, but there are times when it’s not right to communicate, such as when one doesn’t have control of all the facts. “In my experience, time can heal an awful lot of problems that you feel instinctively you have to talk about. In many cases, you are better off not to communicate and let time take its course.”

Bord na Móna GC Anne Marie Curry said it could be difficult to find the balance when all of the answers were not to hand. “I prefer not to go out and communicate when I don’t have all the details,” she said.

Key skill

Mark Cockerill told the conference that good communication in times of consistent change was the key skill of the modern era.

Law Society Council member Tommy Reilly (Kingspan) observed that, in business, it was important to adapt communication styles to different cultures when trading internationally.

Legal function

Ciaran Fenton commented that, if in-house counsel had been allowed to do precisely what they were paid to do in carrying out their legal functions, then a lot of the calamitous corporate collapses that occurred in recent years might have been avoided. “My view is that legal functions are sometimes not allowed to do what they should do,” he told the Gazette.

All lawyers had to be bright, he told the conference, but they also needed to be emotionally intelligent.

“Lawyers would lead better, and feel better about themselves, if they engaged in the whole process of increasing their emotional intelligence, which is about empathy and self-awareness and about negotiating one’s needs productively,” he said.

Different voices

Director general Ken Murphy described himself as an in-house solicitor of sorts, since he had left A&L Goodbody to lead the Law Society.

He pleaded with attendees to make their voices heard more loudly at Law Society Council level, pointing out that there was only one GC currently represented – Thomas Reilly of Kingspan.

The Scottish Law Society has had three presidents from the in-house sector, he pointed out.

Reiterating the significance of the sector, Murphy noted that AIB employed 108 solicitors with practising certificates. “If AIB were a law firm, it would be the ninth biggest in the State, behind Maples and Calder, and ahead of Eversheds,” he said.

In-house lawyers were a vibrant, dynamic, expansive and important part of the Law Society, he repeated, and he expressed the desire to see them contributing more to the development of the profession as a whole.

‘That stupid letter’

Ciaran Fenton told the conference that many lawyers ended up in leadership roles of one sort or another but, often, were not prepared or trained for this. They were in leadership positions because they had an overriding duty to the court to ensure that justice was achieved.


Fenton told the gathered lawyers: “You are guardians of the rule of law and defenders of our hard-won democracies. And when it comes to upholding the rule of law, your role is to protect us from ourselves – as one general counsel put it, to stop us sending that stupid letter; to put the good of society above what is expedient for the business or organisation.”

In-house lawyers should sit back more and reflect on their personal purpose within an organisation, he believed.

But Mark Cockerill dissented from the view that in-house counsel were in an adversarial situation: “We are all on the one team,” he said.


Fenton countered, saying that many lawyers experienced elevated ethical pressures. “Society grabs very bright young people from university and puts them through law school – where they are force-fed an adversarial model and, more often than not, made to value thinking over feeling,” he said.

But no one could lead unless they fully engaged with both their own and others’ feelings, he commented. Showing vulnerability was not a weakness. Therefore, lawyers must find a way to increase their emotional intelligence if they wanted to be leaders in their business.

Ken Murphy observed that the personality type attracted to law tended to be interested in the ‘nitty-gritty’ and ‘focus’, and didn’t tend to like management because “people get in the way of the law”.

He added, however, that the greatest predictor of career success was emotional intelligence, and the capacity to lead people.

Soft skills

“In the Law Society, we are planning to do more to teach ‘soft skills’ by communicating to trainees the importance of active listening skills. We are going to elevate their importance. I greatly believe that all these skills can be learned in the same way as advocacy, drafting and negotiating,” the director general noted.

The conference heard that, in the in-house and public sector, leadership and management were treated as synonymous, but only a very rare subsection was good at both. Good leaders might not have managerial flair.

Panel speakers, including Coillte’s Grainne McLaughlin and Kingspan’s Thomas Reilly, discussed the new paradigm of businesses that were not built to last, but built to change and to fail fast.

This was a great challenge for lawyers, they argued, which required specialised training.