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Bright spark

Bright spark
ALL PICS: Cian Redmond

The Law Society’s new director general

The Law Society’s director general Mark Garrett talks to Mark McDermott about his fascinating career path, his new role – and the passion and pain of being a Mayo football supporter.

Mark Garrett is a man of surprises. A passionate Mayo football fan, he reveals that he’s been to every Mayo football final since 1989 – apart from the 2020 battle against Dublin, which was played behind closed doors due to the pandemic. Even for that one, he meandered down to Jones’ Road an hour before throw-in to cheer on his side. After 11 All-Ireland finals in total – or 13 if you include the replays of 1996 and 2016 – that’s not pain, it’s torture!

Bright spark

Bright spark

The fact that Mayo boasts the longest unbroken sequence of losing finals in the history of the game, there’s something about their indomitable spirit that inspires the human heart. “If you want to know what drives resilience, all you have to be is a Mayo fan,” says Mark, wryly.

Future path

Did he have any idea what career path he would take when walking out of school on his last day?

“I’ll step back a little and say I left school when I was 16 to become an apprentice electrician. I’m a qualified ‘sparks’. But I realised at some stage that that wasn’t going to be my long-term career, so I went back to school and did my Leaving Cert in 1991. Things became clearer after that.

“I went to UCD with a view that I wanted to be a journalist. I started writing with some of the college newspapers but, in covering events, I must admit that I felt more comfortable doing, rather than writing about them. So I ended up getting stuck into things like the Students’ Union and other activities. That’s where college life took me.”

He immersed himself in his degree. “I had amazing lecturers. I think of people like Prof Richard Sinnott, who recently passed and was an amazing politics lecturer; Prof Brigid Laffan, Dr Margaret MacCurtain OP – an absolutely amazing history lecturer – and Prof Albert Lovett, who was another.

“They introduced a very broad brushstroke of opinions and thought. Brian Farrell would have been another highly prominent politics lecturer. It was an exciting time to be in UCD. There was a huge mix of personalities there at that time, many of whom have found their way into public life, the law, politics, media, and various other spheres.”

Launching pad

His first job after college was with Bill O’Herlihy Communications in Dublin, in its public-affairs division. He went on to complete a master’s in communications in DIT, with a view to pursuing a career in public policy, communications, and government relations. “That was the launching pad for my career over the last 20 years or so. I went on to work for a number of private-sector and public-sector organisations.”

O’Herlihy’s introduced him to a variety of Irish-based businesses and organisations, multinationals, and Government departments. After three years there, he moved to the Competition Authority, acting as their head of communications for four years: “That included a range of competition studies into the banking, legal, insurance sectors, and others. It was probably my first significant interaction with the legal profession and the Law Society.”

During his time with the authority, he completed a postgraduate diploma in EU competition law at King’s College, London, sitting the exams at Blackhall Place in 2006.

Then life took a major turn.

The Big Apple

“My wife and I both felt we would benefit from living abroad for a number of years, so we looked at a number of options. New York was top of our list.”

They were two years into savouring the delights of the Big Apple when Mark (then working for McKinsey) received a phone call from Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, offering him the role of chief of staff: “That was probably one of the toughest decisions we’ve ever had to make. Eventually we decided that it was an opportunity not to be missed.”

Becoming chief of staff to a future Tánaiste must have involved a huge learning curve?

“Most of my time was about managing the fallout from the financial crisis – and everything that went with that. Probably the best lesson learned during that period was that you might take a role for a particular reason, but the circumstances could rapidly change. No one, I would suggest, would have entered politics or political life to manage that sort of crisis – and having to make extremely difficult choices.

“In fact, there were no good choices – there were just choices between sets of bad options. From a national perspective, it was a very difficult time for so many people, and a real challenge for individuals, families, and society as a whole. And while we’ve come through the other side, there’s still an amount of fallout.”

Shaping the future

So why take on the role of director general of the Law Society?

“First of all, the Society and profession play such a significant role in Irish society. The law and the profession are integral to the sound running of the Irish economy and society. Ireland has been extremely lucky over the years to have a well-regarded and positive reputation in terms of the rule of law.

“We’ve been able to build on that foundation to help modernise and ensure that Ireland, the economy, and the legal profession have benefitted – and will continue to benefit over the next decade.

“My vision for the profession is one that not just reflects that dynamism, confidence, and ambition, but also that helps to shape it. I don’t doubt the challenges, but the reality here is that it’s such a positive opportunity to lead this organisation.

“If I were to summarise my career to date, in broad terms, it’s been about helping organisations navigate the world in which they operate. So much is changing now, and the idea that governments and regulation are shaping the profession, shaping society, shaping the economy – we have to be ready to face that.

"That’s the big challenge and something that’s very exciting to me.

“The skillsets I bring to this role include having an external lens to policy, Government, media, the general public, business, and organisational structure. Of course, there’s no shortage of legal advice within the Law Society or the profession, so what I bring to the table, ultimately, is a broader range of skills and a long history of interaction with the legal profession throughout my career.”

Substantial changes

“One of the things I’ll be prioritising will be to take a strategic look at what the Society is currently doing, and then looking forward at the medium to long-term, so that we can ensure that we put our resources to the best use for our members and the profession.

“In the next ten years, there will be substantial changes to the way in which we all live our lives and do our work. Much of that change is going to be mandated and regulated by changes in the law. That said, despite the challenges, there will also be opportunities.

“We can see all around us that businesses, consumers, and employees want to operate in a society and economy with world-class governance, reputation, and legal systems – and those will be among the competitive advantages for Irish society in the future. The real opportunities lie in continuing to promote and advocate for the highest standards in these areas.

“At its best, the law and the legal profession are very much about promoting the public interest. And what’s in the public interest is also in the interest of the legal profession. This will benefit practices, both large and small, right across the country.”

Strategic priorities

“My priority is to put in place a proactive strategy that will help members mitigate the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that those changes are going to bring.

“The Society’s current strategy ends in 2023, so 2022 is a great time to reflect and look forward. The key aspect will be to engage with the Council, our members, staff, the broader stakeholders to really understand what we should be doing over the next five to ten years. 

“We’re in an era of ‘Big Government’, where it is expected that the Government will intervene in more areas of our society and economy. There are big questions hanging over the regulation of the profession in the years ahead, as well as questions on the unity of the profession and the provision of education.”

Challenges and opportunities

“One of my major priorities as director general will be to shape the negotiations with Government and the Legal Services Regulatory Authority. That said, there are significant opportunities for the profession in increased laws and regulation in areas such as data privacy, climate and sustainability regulations, tax and trade rules, dignity at work, and health-and-safety issues associated with remote working. These are areas where the legal profession can lead and build their businesses.

“I don’t need to tell anybody that competition will be an increasing challenge and opportunity, with other professionals looking to move into the legal space, with alternative legal suppliers and dispute-resolution mechanisms.

“I see, also, from the recent market study conducted by Crowe, that there is a growing recognition that many sole practitioners and small firms, in particular, require more support in considering the business-development aspects of their practices – I believe that is an area to which I can bring considerable experience and focus.

“I think everybody realises that we’re living through rapidly changing times, so the question is: how do we build on the successes of the Society and the profession, so that we can be as equally successful in the future as we have been in the past? That means, ultimately, that we will have to adapt to the changes happening around us. That’s going to be a big part of what we do – but we’ll do that in consultation with the profession, with the staff, and with our stakeholders, because it will very much be a joint effort.”

Mark McDermott is the editor of the Law Society Gazette.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.