On the McKenna & Co Instagram grid, bright colours and upbeat photography abound – there’s not a grey suit, boring boardroom, or stock photo in sight. The posts are a mix of pics of smiling employees holding gifts from grateful clients, positive Google reviews with heartfelt endorsements, and snapshots of the team’s fundraising work for charity.
The firm Lisa founded in 2017 also has an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, which Lisa and her team curate with a clear goal in mind: to communicate the firm’s values of positivity, friendliness, and authenticity: “We want to move away from the traditional image of solicitors,” she says.
“For clients, they feel represented by seeing their gifts on our socials. It also enables followers to virtually ‘meet’ our team and see how much their gifts mean to us. It humanises the legal process for people, and also embodies McKenna and Co’s ethos of being approachable, accessible and friendly.”
Lisa recalls how one of the team was recently at a party and, on saying where she worked, the other person asked: “Is that the firm with the lovely Instagram account? I love it!”
Lisa points out that the person making the comment wasn’t a client of the firm or an existing colleague – just a casual Irish Instagram user. “It shows the creativity, innovation and clarity of our social media that someone recognises the company name from the social-media account,” she says.
It’s become a modern cliché that social media can present an image that rarely matches up to reality, but Lisa takes care to ensure that the firm’s social accounts reflect an approach that was already in place. From day one, the firm took a supportive and empathetic outlook to its work. In practice, that might involve collecting house keys for clients when necessary, or helping to mind their children during meetings.
Recently, to help a client whose child has autism, Lisa scheduled the meeting for after working hours so the office would be less busy, and the lights were dimmed to help the child to feel more comfortable.
Last June, the firm painted its front door in the colours of the rainbow flag to celebrate Pride throughout the month: “We wanted to exhibit our allyship for Pride in an innovative way, especially as we have recently moved into a building that we are leasing, as opposed to sharing. We were able to immediately, wordlessly, convey the fact that we are an open, accepting, inclusive firm to work with and for,” says Lisa.
The symbolic gesture got positive feedback from people in the LGBT community. “One client advised us that the reason for choosing us was due to the fact they had seen our Pride door and took comfort in that inclusivity,” she adds.
This dedicated attention to detail explains why Lisa was a finalist in the Irish Law Awards for ‘Excellence and innovation in client services’. It’s the latest in a series of awards for her firm, which now employs ten people. Lisa was also a finalist for the Network Ireland Businesswoman of the Year Awards and in Ireland’s Most Inspiring Women in Business Awards 2019.
In 2020, the firm won the ‘Emerging new business award’ at the Dublin Network Ireland Awards, and was highly commended in the new ‘Power Within’ category in the same year, which recognised the resilience of entrepreneurs during COVID-19. In Lisa’s case, property work came to a standstill during the pandemic, so she put her time to productive use by supporting young professionals who had been let go from other firms.
She set up a service called ‘Emplawyer’ to help young solicitors build their CVs, and she carried out mock interviews to prepare them for their next roles. She employed two junior trainees who had lost their jobs, and took no wage during that time to ensure they were paid.
She also provided 100 free wills for elderly people and frontline workers during the pandemic. Lisa continues to give back in other ways, serving on the board of directors at Age Action and providing free legal advice to hospitals and GPs.
You’ve got mail
When Lisa founded the firm, she took no clients from her previous role in a larger corporate firm. McKenna & Co specialises in property law and probate, but also practices in personal injury, company law, civil and commercial law. Business has grown steadily through referrals since then. In just five years, it has built up 1,500 clients, and Lisa estimates that close to 40% of the work comes via social media.
But to Lisa, the social-media feed has a value that goes far beyond just being a sales tool. Lisa emphasises how it helps to build empathy between the public and the people doing the legal work.
She believes this is especially important in the legal field, because the downside of today’s always-on, ever-connected world is that client expectations can sometimes exceed what solicitors can realistically perform.
“I always think about that. Even when we’re doing some type of video or a webinar, we show clients that we’re only human. The late nights, the weekends – the blood, sweat and tears that you put into the transaction. It’s not just a case of signing the contract. A solicitor isn’t just a robot; we work so, so hard for clients,” she says.
World on a wire
This leads Lisa to another subject she feels passionately about: mental-health challenges in the legal profession: “As a solicitor, you encounter stress, pressure, and demands on a daily basis. The profession is so demanding, all day every day. No one is willing to wait – certainly not in the property sphere. You realise, how has the legal profession got to this stage where it’s so demanding and challenging in every regard?”
Some of this is due to the nature of legal work, which invariably involves taking on other people’s worries and solving problems for them. But this can quickly become amplified if a client is demanding, or if the colleague in the other law firm is feeling especially combative. Conflict and confrontation may be part of most lawyers’ armoury, but the endless jousting can take a toll. Lisa believes that solicitors that have endured this over time could need “years of counselling” to recover.
“One of the hardest parts of the job is managing stress and burnout,” she says. Lisa openly admits how, in the past, she often felt overwhelmed, and experienced an outpouring of emotion after work on a Friday at the end of an especially stressful week.
The Law Society has put in place mental-health supports for trainees (see panel), and Lisa urges solicitors who have been in practice to make time for mental-health support or coaching to deal with challenges they face.
“You need to take time for yourself and your own mindset. The legal profession has a high rate of situations where people have mental-health problems and maybe that’s not talked about enough, so definitely find time for yourself. Work with someone to work through your challenges,” she urges.
Lisa took proactive steps to address this in her own working life. In September 2021, she hired a development manager for the firm, whose remit is to contribute to the company’s success in non-legal matters. Lisa says this made “a huge difference” to the firm – and to her.
As the founder and principal of a small firm, Lisa has a seemingly endless list of tasks aside from the fee-earning aspect of being a solicitor. She acknowledges it wasn’t easy to let go of these responsibilities, but she understood it was necessary.
“At the stage we were at in our growth, I realised I needed to step back from the coalface. If I’m in a burned-out state or have had a very busy week, that’s not adding value in terms of growing the office,” she explains.
“It was the best thing I ever did, stepping away from 80% of the managerial part of the business. You need these experts to grow your business. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. You might be an expert in a certain thing – but not everything. You might think you’re indispensable and take on everything, but you damage your business by trying to be a jack of all trades,” she says.
It’s a mindset Lisa recognises in many other principals and solicitors who have built up their practices and are often reluctant to cede control to someone else: “Most entrepreneurs are not willing and/or able to invest in their growth to this extent. However, this means that they have to take on that work themselves, which either takes away from the fee-earning work or means there is no sustainable, continuous commitment to growth,” she warns.
She contends that investing in a non-fee-paying role doesn’t put the firm at a loss. “In fact, it allows you to grow and provide a more effective service. You need to give away control,” she believes.
In Lisa’s experience, hiring a development manager has had multiple benefits: “It has enabled us to operate better within the office, have better working relationships, work in our own building, be more environmentally friendly, have an eye-catching social-media account, and ensured the office is always well supplied.”
The second step Lisa took to change her way of thinking was to invest in a career coach. She undertook the Bob Proctor leadership coaching programme, which involves meeting the coach every Monday at 8am before the working week starts. The coach reviews progress with Lisa and sets new mentality challenges: “It’s really helped me with my mindset, so if something does go wrong, I have ways to deal with it,” she comments.
Lisa notices how this has helped her to develop better working relationships with her team. Her colleagues also appreciate being given more responsibility: “You can do a lot of harm to a team if you micromanage too much. The junior staff have reported that when I’ve let go control, they’ve grown more and become more confident themselves.”
Gordon Smith is a freelance journalist.
Are stress and legal work inseparable? It might seem that way. A study by insurance provider Protectivity found that people working in the legal sector were the second most-stressed professionals, after those working in HR. LawCare, a charity that supports the legal community, found that 26% of callers to its helpline did so because of stress, while 11% did so because they were experiencing anxiety.
Against this backdrop, the Law Society recently launched its own Psychological Services section, complete with qualified counsellors. The service includes therapeutic support, peer support and mentoring, as well as a Professional Wellbeing Hub. It was rolled out earlier this year, having first been geared towards trainees. Since then, the Society’s Council gave the go-ahead for the service to expand to encompass all solicitors.
For more information, see lawsociety.ie/solicitors/representation/psychological-services.
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