The Castlebar-based solicitor had no background in law. “Absolutely, unequivocally none,” she says.
No link to law
“My mum is an entrepreneur, my father was in hospitality, so there was no link to law at all. I went to school in St Joseph’s Convent in Castlebar from 1993 to ’98. I’d had a little bit of work experience with a family friend who’s a legal practitioner in Castlebar. Of course, everybody had the heady images of Ally McBeal, but I was very practical. I was ‘very applied’.”
She admits to being one of those girls whose work was carefully organised into separate folders, complete with coloured dividers and ‘yellow stickies’.
“Yes, I love lists, I thrive on lists. I think most lawyers do. Some have other strengths. But the majority that I know would tend to be pretty organised – and it can be the difference between being a good and a great lawyer sometimes, in terms of how you approach your work.”
As soon as she finished her Leaving Cert, she visited all of the law schools in Galway, Dublin, Cork and Limerick to help her decide where she would go.
“I could not get Galway out of my head. I was particularly drawn to the corporate law degree at the time, because you had the option of taking business subjects, while being able to specialise in legal French.”
Why the love affair with French?
“I am particularly good at languages, and French in particular. I took French and German to Leaving Cert honours standard and did very well in them.”
Galway gave her the opportunity to try different subjects in first year, including economics and accounting alongside the traditional law subjects. She studied the French legal system and European law, through French. “It was a challenge, but it was incredible,” she says.
She dropped many of the business-related subjects in second year, deciding to focus on French and on contract and commercial law. France beckoned during her Erasmus year, where she opted to study law in Poitiers in the southwest of France.
“They’ve a fantastic law faculty there. I knew, for me, it was going to be the best in terms of my subjects. So I continued with European law and French constitutional law. When I finished in Poitier, I resolved that I would work in France at some stage.”
Back in Galway, she completed her corporate law degree, alongside the LLB, leaving Galway with two degrees after four years.
We’ll always have Paris
“At the end of my LLB year, NUI Galway had a very active placement programme,” says Katie. “Professor Denis Driscoll worked very closely with a number of high-profile multinationals to place NUI Galway students. Coming into my last term, he invited Madeleine Vendeuil-Denise, the General Counsel for Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), to give a lecture in Galway. She was contemplating taking on her first Irish intern.”
A number of students were shortlisted to meet with Vendeuil-Denise for a possible placement of three months.
“When we spoke, Madeleine was particularly fond of the University of Poitiers, and was very interested in the subject range I’d selected when I was in Poitiers. She needed somebody who was proficient in French. I was selected, so I packed my bags and headed for Paris.”
The deal with Charlize
The luxury goods company has over 75 houses, with one alone focusing on luxury and fashion goods. Katie was selected to work in perfume and cosmetics, and worked closely with the general counsel and another partner on “some incredibly interesting projects”.
For instance, she was involved in the negotiations for Christian Dior’s sponsorship deal with actress Charlize Theron. A number of high-value commercial distribution agreements followed.
“This was the first time I had seen corporate governance in practice, and to see codes of conduct developed,” says Katie. “I would have studied the theory in Galway, but I’d never before been involved in drafting reports that factored in corporate governance issues. To see this first-hand was excellent experience.”
While she didn’t get to meet Charlize in person, she was delighted to have some input into the successful negotiation of the high-value commercial agreement, which led to the actress being the face of Christian Dior’s J’Adore fragrance.
“It taught me how you needed to be able to adapt and react, and to ensure that you were protecting the house’s interests, as well as ensuring that everything was above board in terms of the agreement,” Katie says.
Her term with LVMH was initially for three months – she ended up staying for a year. “They were keen for me to remain, but Blackhall Place called!” she jokes. “The door was left open for me if I changed my mind and decided to return.
“I felt drawn, however, to Blackhall Place. It was the ‘done thing’ at the time. I was following the traditional linear path that I had concluded was the way to go. So I completed my PPC1 and my traineeship.”
She qualified as a solicitor in 2008 – “the apocalyptic 2008, when the world as we know it ended”.
“I was once asked what my main accomplishment was following my training period and replied that it was being offered a job with Lavelle Coleman in Dublin. Sadly, that didn’t happen for others of my colleagues, who left law and never returned after their training contract. That’s just the way it was at the time.”
Katie worked in the law firm’s litigation department, specifically on multiparty litigation. Most of her time was taken up with representing home-owners in North Dublin, whose homes had been affected by the presence of pyrite in the infill beneath their homes. She acted for hundreds of affected homeowners.
“That was a particularly complex case, not necessarily in terms of the technical aspects of law, but more in terms of the people skills, the emotional intelligence, and the communication skills required to deal with clients in a particularly devastating and vulnerable position. That was a steep learning curve for me.”
Was she happy with the outcome of the case?
“The case ran for about 166 days at the time so, as part of that settlement, a trust fund of €25.5 million was established for the homeowners. That saw their homes repaired, but with a limited contribution towards floor coverings, accommodation and legal costs. Their homes, however, were going to be repaired and properly certified. In the circumstances, in the economic climate, I think it was the best outcome.”
Into the west
She stayed with Lavelle Coleman until the end of 2010. A major life change followed with her marriage to Mark Cadden. “We had been going out for nine years and were newly married. I was living in Dublin. He was living in Mayo, and it was very difficult to ignore the draw of wanting to return and start a new life there. We agreed that the best decision would be for me to move west.
“My preference was to remain in practice, but I had underestimated how devastating the crash had been on the local legal economy, in terms of opportunities and roles. It didn’t deter me, however, because I was quickly taken on as a project manager for a legal conference being hosted by Mayo County Council. I worked with them and the Western Development Commission for a year. It was an inaugural legal event in Westport, which was organised with the Brehon Law Society in the US.
“My role as project manager was to attract the right speakers, to have the right themes, the right sponsors, and ensure attendance. And it was a great success.”
A trip back to Galway led to a chance conversation about the university’s LLM (Public Law) course. “I don’t know why, but all of sudden my ears pricked up. It was a no-brainer for me. I applied that evening to pursue it, full-time. I was very resolute that if the opportunities weren’t presenting themselves in terms of getting back into a practice, then I would use the time to further my knowledge.”
“I was looking for some way to contribute to or advance particular policies or agendas in a meaningful way that would be fulfilling for me. That, possibly, was the start of the change in my perception of the meaning of success. Success now started to look a little bit different to me, rather than staying on the traditional linear path within a legal practice in the West of Ireland. My head had been turned. I became utterly immersed in the theory of regulation and corporate governance, and the critical thinking on these core subjects.”
Where her new skillset would take her, she wasn’t quite sure. She had received a number of offers around 2013, but these would have meant relocating to Dublin – just at the time when she was expecting her first child.
“Baby Reuben arrived, and I still hadn’t completely shaken the notion of traditional success. I joked with a friend recently: ‘God, aren’t we like recovering solicitors!’ You think that there’s nothing else. You really don’t believe there’s anything else you can do – and that’s a fallacy. It’s just not true.”
Despite her epiphany, she returned to general practice in Swinford in Co Mayo, with P O’Connor & Son, solicitors. “I very much enjoyed working with Pat and the team. They’re a super, super bunch of people. I really enjoyed working in litigation and in charity law, and ended up advising charities on a wide range of issues.
“I had been interested in some volunteering activity previously, but not at this level, and not in the space where I could give practical advice, or advise on forthcoming legal issues. At this time, in 2014, I was also appointed by the Government as a board member of the Charities Regulatory Authority, so there was a lot going on.”
Following the birth of her daughter Willow in 2015, after an eight-month hiatus, she went back to work in 2016. Life was busy between a young family, legal practice and honouring board commitments. Katie found herself again questioning what success looked like, and whether the linear path was for her. Following a great degree of reflection, she took the brave decision to step off the career travellator to take time out.
“The significant decision for me was whether I was brave enough to stop and reflect on what I truly wanted. My education through undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and throughout my career, had been a constant hive of activity and intense studying, examinations and working. This was the first time that I had stopped or was about to stop.”
She describes it as “terrifying, but I was confident in my abilities” – so that the terror was fleeting. She ‘downed tools’ for 12 months, though continued to serve on the board of the Charities Regulator and to lecture. “During that time, I identified the issues that were important to me, in order to optimise my sabbatical and my time.” She realised that she was looking at a career that would encompass multiple interests.
“I would encourage everyone to step back, insofar as they can within their current day-to-day situation, to think about these things. Sit down and be very honest with yourself about what your interests might be – where you see yourself in five years. Start having conversations with other people in your areas of interest. A conversation stimulates change, but it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as pressing the ‘stop’ button!”
The call of the sea
How did she go from serving on the board of the Charities Regulator to joining the council of the RNLI for Ireland and Britain?
“An individual who knew of my strengths in governance and my regulatory back-ground approached me to see if would consider joining the Irish council. I subsequently met with RNLI trustee David Delamer. I couldn’t believe his passion for the organisation – I’ve never encountered anything like it, and I’ve worked with quite a number of charitable organisations!
“He really piqued my interest. I wanted to know more about the organisation that saves lives at sea and instils such a sense of enthusiasm and passion. I very much wanted to be part of this unique organisation, and to help in whatever way I could.
“I hadn’t envisaged participating on the RNLI Council (UK), but I was requested to strongly consider it. There was a desire for the diversity of thought and the skillset I could offer.
“I feel that I’ve joined the RNLI at a very important time. It will celebrate 200 years of saving lives at sea in in 2024. In this time, RNLI crews and lifeguards have saved countless lives, while influencing, supervising and educating communities. RNLI international teams are doing great work with like-minded organisations to help tackle drowning in communities at risk all around the world.”
Rock the boat
Is she enjoying her legal career at present?
“I’m very, very happy. Look at the opportunities that I’ve had. I am now developing my own specialist offering, and collaborating on some very interesting projects. Many organisations want to be better governed and go from good to great – and I can help with that. And I would say to all female solicitors to think seriously about getting involved on boards of directors. It’s proven that diverse boards make better decisions.
“That’s the reality. I would encourage female solicitors to register with StateBoards.ie, and to look to their professional networks and other organisations that are non-legal in nature, such as the Institute of Directors.
“I’ve learned from my involvement with the Charities Regulator and the RNLI that it’s vitally important to be confident in your skills, particularly in your communication skills – and especially your ability to listen and to challenge an executive when that is required.”
Does she find that tough?
“No, not personally, because I’ve had time to practise it. That wouldn’t come naturally to a lot of solicitors – female or male. Confidence in your ability is very important. And don’t be afraid of complex problems, because there’s always a solution to every problem.”