Speakers on the theme, ‘Reflecting on the past 100 years – navigating the next 100’, were Ms Justice Eileen Roberts of the High Court, Law Society President Maura Derivan, Irish Women Lawyers’ Association chair Aoife McNicholl, and Law Society Law School ambassador Jade Bakare.
President Maura Derivan said that, as a woman, she had never felt constrained in making a contribution to public life in Ireland. Her mother had been a teacher who worked outside the home, so she always had a positive role model for what women could achieve.
She paid tribute to the many inspiring women in Irish life and their wonderful achievements, including the late Vicky Phelan and Ruth Morrissey, who had campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the victims of defective cervical-cancer screenings.
She warned, however, that there was now a move to restrict the right of access to justice for victims, particularly those involved in medical-negligence cases: “Section 60 of the Patient Safety (Notifiable Incidents and Open Disclosure) Bill 2019 proposes a significant restriction that clearly states that medical audits shall not be disclosed,” she said.
“If the bill is passed in its present form, it will result in a situation where the late heroines, Vicky Phelan and Ruth Morrissey, would never have been able to gather the evidence necessary to highlight their tragic situations and to bring their circumstances into the public domain, ensuring the protection in the future of the lives of many others.”
President Derivan warned against any move to stigmatise medical-negligence victims, adding that it was wrong and unfair to blame the present state of the health service on claims made by such victims.
The president then launched the centenary commemoration celebration, pointing towards the commemorative display that featured the first 100 women solicitors. She referred to the six women presidents of the Law Society to date – five of whom were present. She paid tribute to the first woman president, the late Moya Quinlan, who had, in fact, sponsored the incumbent president as a Council member.
President Derivan spoke of the path that had been taken by the first “brave and courageous” female solicitors, Mary Dorothy Heron and Helena Early, for others to follow. That path had grown into a laneway, then subsequently a roadway and had now become a highway. “It is for the next generation to expand it into a motorway in order to achieve true equality, diversity and inclusion,” she said.
Ms Justice Eileen Roberts – the second female solicitor to be appointed to the High Court – said that having a supportive husband sharing the family workload had been a critical factor that had enabled her to continue her career while bringing up two children.
She commented that it could be difficult to maintain client loyalty nowadays in law firms. It was also challenging for women to rebuild their practices on their return from maternity leave. Women needed support in this, she said, but if offered, it paid significant dividends.
During her time as a practising solicitor in A&L Goodbody, she said that reducing her working week had helped her to keep going during a challenging phase. She became an equity partner shortly afterwards. The firm took the “unusual and progressive step” of amending their partnership deed to allow this to happen, Roberts said. She became a four-day-a-week equity partner and, subsequently, head of the litigation practice – and eventually chair of the firm.
“If that sounds like a smooth career path, I want to assure you that, during that period, I often felt overwhelmed and was always exhausted,” she revealed. “I drafted more than one resignation letter,” she added, but her boss refused to open the one that she gave him. “He was right – I felt better on the Monday. But that is how tight the margins are when you’re trying to balance everything,” she said.
In small things, employer support can make a big difference, she added, and women should get whatever help they need in order to keep going. The most difficult aspect was to maintain balance and observe boundaries, the judge said. That challenge was even more difficult today, given the ubiquitous reach of email.
“Be flexible, patient, and realistic,” she advised the attendees. “Your career will not travel in a straight line – and the most difficult times can often be when one is learning the most.”
Aoife McNicholl, chair of the Irish Women Lawyers’ Association, encouraged the large attendance to take every opportunity offered to them.
‘Opportunity’ and ‘authenticity’ were her watchwords, she commented – from her legal education at the University of Ulster, to her current legal career as a criminal-defence lawyer with Sheehan and Partners.
McNicholl added that she had been mentored and inspired by many remarkable women, who had encouraged and supported her along the way: “Back yourself and have confidence in your own ability,” she said, “and always learn from your mistakes.”
Guest speaker and past-president of the Law Society Michele O’Boyle focused on International Women’s Day in the context of the concept of ‘equity’, saying: “The world is invited to embrace equity. Equity means creating an inclusive world. Equal opportunities are not enough. Equality is the goal, and equity is the means to get there. An equal world is an enabled world ... of that we can be certain."
Continuing, she added: “This year’s call to truly embrace equity encourages us to recognise that our new normal should be, and can be, a society of equality.
“And, of course, the rise of women is not about the fall of men. We should see men as allies and as advocates for change to accelerate women’s equality. Men sometimes have a different view and a different perspective, however. It’s important to recognise that diversity of opinion also reflects equality.
“Personally, I don’t feel the need to succeed in a man’s world rather,” she said. “I feel I have the right to succeed in a world of equality.”
Proud of the profession
Michele O’Boyle said that she was proud that the solicitors’ profession in Ireland was now perceived to be a global leader in equality, being the first legal profession worldwide to reach female majority in 2014.
“Unfortunately, that is not yet reflected in partnership positions in the profession, where women currently represent only one-third of partners,” she commented. “It is, however, within our grasp, to continue, to navigate a path, towards a society of true Equality in the profession.
“I say that because I firmly believe that, as a society, we recognise the benefit of the input of women in decision-making and, for that reason, women throughout the island must continue to be encouraged, empowered and facilitated to participate in the decision-making processes at all levels and, to provide significant influence on decision-making, and policy outcomes.”
The past-president added that Irish society needed to strive to ensure that “there is no gender bias in the allocation of resources, or allocation of positions, so that the necessary diffusion of rights and duties in a modern democratic society are met. It must become part of our DNA”.
During her term as Law Society President, Ms O’Boyle said that she had been committed to bringing into sharp focus women in leadership roles: “I endeavoured to use my position to influence and inspire, to create change and to lead by example, and to shine a light on women in leadership."
She had also learned over the years that by “extending the hand of inclusion to somebody, and particularly somebody who would otherwise be excluded, is one of the most important and rewarding things that you can do – and it is likely to have one of the greatest influences on that person”.
“We can, and we should, seek out inclusion,” she said. “We can, and we should, challenge each other by example to do so. When we embrace equity, we embrace inclusion.”
She added: “I am delighted to see our younger generations picking up the baton so confidently, to galvanise our collective efforts towards realising women’s rights. The future is safe in their hands,” she commented.
Concluding on the topic of equality and inclusion, Michele O’Boyle quoted the American writer Maya Angelou: “‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’.”
Being the first
Jade Bakare (Law School ambassador and Dentons’ real-estate associate) said that she preferred not to identify as a first-generation child of African immigrants, but that was her reality.
“Being the first in a family to attend university inevitably came with its challenges. I had nothing to compare it to, no mentor, and no point of reference. So, like the Irish do, I just got on with it,” she said. “I knew I had a battle in front of me when I realised not only that I was the only black person in my entire law class of 400 but, in fact, the only person of colour in the faculty of law.
“I wish I could say it has been easy sailing from there. Being the only person who looks like me in a firm is difficult – and still is. Unless a partner takes the time to mentor you, you can forget it,” she continued.
“It is imperative that the generations after me are better afforded the opportunities to build their careers in a space where their treatment is not based on a pecking order of how dark their skin is, how thick their accent is, or whatever society has deemed ‘less than’,” she said.
Diversity had become a buzzword, she noted, but was often relegated to nothing more than a marketing tool.
“We saw how quickly the world could adapt to change when forced to during COVID. We, too, can adapt our mindsets and work together to make diversity and inclusion more than a box-ticking exercise. After all, a diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions and outcomes,” she said.
“To my knowledge, there are no black senior associates or partners in the top-20 firms. That is a telling fact,” Jade said.
“It is impossible to have firms who want to be innovative and not have diversity in their workforce – it just does not work,” she continued.
“Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice we make every day. As leaders, I urge you to put out the message that you embrace – and not just tolerate – diversity,” she concluded.
Law firms and in-house and public-sector legal teams may pledge their names to the Law Society’s Gender Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Charter and avail of useful diversity and inclusion resources at www.lawsociety.ie
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at the Law Society Gazette.
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