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The reluctant lawyer

The reluctant lawyer
James Cahill PIC: Michael McLaughlin

Mayo’s James Cahill is the Society’s new president

The Law Society’s new president, James Cahill, is equally at home designing boats, replacing an engine, or solving a tricky conveyance.

‘High-seas honeymoon a six-storm ordeal’; ‘Lost crew sail home’; and ‘Cheers in Clew Bay’ – just some of the headlines that made the news in November 1986, when James Cahill and his wife Katherine, along with her sisters Carmel and Fionnuala and a family friend Jarlath Cunnane, finally sailed into Clew Bay on board Ricjak.

In a subsequent interview, James commented: “We endured six storms after we left Boston, but nothing was as bad as the storm after we hit landfall at Slyne Head, off west Galway. The waves towered 35 feet above and the swells were as wide as football pitches. We were never before in such grave danger. We were near the coast and we thought we could be sunk.”

The reluctant lawyer
The crew members of Ricjak celebrate their safe return

The reluctant lawyer
James’ self-built Ricjak PIC: Michael McLaughlin

“The mast was almost touching the waves,” Carmel added. “Then one gigantic wave came right over us and completely submerged us.”

They were blown up the coast in the darkness, past Achill Head towards Donegal Bay. “We were praying hard, I can tell you,”  James said.

The boat and its crew put in at Inishlyre Island, in sight of Croagh Patrick, at 5am, where they made contact with island friends who welcomed them home. From there, they phoned family members and friends to let them know they were safe.

Colourful kaleidoscope

Thirty-four years, almost to the day, I’m interviewing James Cahill, the Law Society’s new president. I’ve known James for the best part of 14 years, having first come across him at the Law Society’s annual conference in Dubrovnik in April 2006. But relatively early in the interview, I realise I don’t know him at all.

James is a man with as many facets as a kaleidoscope. The most obvious labels to attach to him are ‘James the solicitor’, ‘James the sole practitioner’, ‘James the Mayo man’, and ‘James the family man’. But how about ‘James the welder’, ‘James the mechanic’, ‘James the builder’, ‘James the boat designer’, ‘James the sailor’, or ‘James with dyslexia’?

The second in a family of five – and the only boy – James was born in 1953 and reared in Castlebar, Co Mayo. His dad John qualified as a solicitor in 1935 and his mother Carmel was a physiotherapist.

His dad initially set up in partnership in Dublin immediately after the war but, within two years, ran into unexpected difficulties as a result of a dishonest partner. He describes the impact on his dad as being significant, but is incredibly proud of how he handled it.

Father’s footsteps?

Was it expected that James would follow in his father’s footsteps?

“No, absolutely not,” says James. “He said to me when I was around 21 that he would not be leaving the firm to me and that, when the time came, he would be winding down the practice.”

At any rate, James was entirely uncertain about the career he wished to follow. He had studied at UCD and tells how he had worked in an office for about 18 months, around 1979, before qualifying as a solicitor.

“I wanted to be self-employed and to work in the West of Ireland,” he says. “My father had begged me to go and work in an office for six months, learn how to make a living, ‘and, when you’ve done that, you’ll be off my conscience. I don’t care if you never walk into an office for the rest of your life’!

“That’s the honest truth, that’s what he said to me! He had the psychology right, so I agreed. As far as I was concerned, I’d spent a lifetime locked up in school, and wasn’t going to be locked up again.

“But then I got so committed, met exactly the right people who had all sorts of problems on their hands, and I got stuck in and had
great fun.”

Main energy

His career wasn’t the main focus of his life at that stage, though. His energy was directed towards a 43ft steel boat that he had designed and was in the process of building. The goal was to get Ricjak built and to sail it around the world.

“I couldn’t get this boat built, you know. No matter where I looked, I needed £1,000 here and a £1,000 there. I knew that my work as a solicitor wasn’t going to help pay those bills, since payments were too erratic. A friend of mine was working for a large electrical contractors called MF Kent in Clonmel.

“They agreed that they would take me on for a power-station project in South Africa. They would pay me £23,000 into my hand, no tax, no nothing, working for a year. I’d be billeted at the power station doing electrical work, they’d give me an induction course, I’d be fed and watered, and I could work overtime anytime I wanted it.

“Well, things don’t ever work out quite according to plan. Another opportunity presented itself. So I went to a man I was very friendly with in Mayo Sailing Club, Michael Browne, who is now an elderly retired solicitor.

“I told Michael of my dilemma. I’d given up my job, I was heading for South Africa in two-and-a-half weeks, and would he mind checking around discreetly with a few solicitors to see if there was anyone looking for somebody.

“He turned around and said, ‘Well actually, I could do with somebody myself’.”

Still needing money to finish his boat, he took to building trailers in the evenings and weekends. “Literally, I was out of the office and into my overalls.”


It was around this time that he met his wife to be, Katherine Killalea, from Swinford in Mayo. James was still working for Michael Browne in Garvey Smith & Flanagan, largely doing work for Mayo County Council. A job came from a New York attorney.

“In the course of a conversation with him, I told him my plans. I’d give whatever time I could to his job, but I was building a boat and was heading to the United States the old-fashioned way, via the Caribbean, and nothing was going to stop me.

“Katherine and I got married in August 1985. With the boat ready, we were planning to set sail for 12 to 18 months on an extended honeymoon. That summer was shocking,” James recalls. “There was nothing but gales and I couldn’t get out of the place, the weather was so bad.

“Anyway, we eventually got away in late September but, just before I left, a message came to my house from the lawyer in the United States, who I’d never met but who thought that the sailing trip was a great idea.

“Unbelievably, he had opened an account for me in the Bank of Ireland in New York and had deposited money in it and sent me a credit card. Other than that, I would have been leaving with £800 in my pocket!”

They set sail for Portugal and the Canaries with two of Katherine’s sisters. Then it was onwards to the Caribbean and from there to Florida and up the east coast of the US. Eventually, they docked the boat in Georgia and travelled across the continent.

Upturned yacht

It would be the following November by the time they would see Ireland again. The Atlantic dealt them a rotten hand, serving up six storms shortly after they left Boston, via the Azores, and eventually spewing them up in Ireland after everyone thought they had been lost at sea.

Two boats had already tried to get to Ireland from the Azores and had been unable to make it – one had had to return due to damage. “I phoned an acquaintance who was working at a weather station in Valentia to say that we were coming,” says James.

“Around 12 days later, a fishing boat spotted an upturned yacht in Donegal Bay, which happened to be the same colours as my own boat, and the guessing game started. The press, of course, were enquiring and contacted Valentia.

“In their estimation, we should have got up within 10 or 12 days – this was day 12 or 13 and they all jumped to the wrong conclusion. Unfortunately, due to the bad weather and the long voyage, our batteries were flat and we had no way of radioing anyone to let them know we were safe. Our families and friends were mighty relieved when we got the news to them.”

On a high after their safe return, James admits to finding it very difficult to get back in the saddle. “I was getting invitations from sailing clubs all over the country to give talks.”

The fun eventually came to an end though and, with money he’d been paid for doing a radio interview with the Gay Byrne Show, he used it to prime his new business and opened Cahill and Cahill to the world on New Year’s Day 1987.

“I had been active in the Mayo Solicitors’ Bar Association from day one and was friendly with all the solicitors. I went around to their offices asking them for any files that might have been causing them difficulty.”

The “load of files” he collected convinced him that he could make headway with the new business, with the promise to his colleagues that he would return the files if he got busy, unless he managed to finish them first. “In that way, I was relatively busy from the beginning,” he says.

Today, Cahill and Cahill is a general legal practice that consists of James and another solicitor, Keith Finnan, who are supported by three administrative staff.

How does it feel?

What does it mean to him, becoming the 150th President of the Law Society? His response is slow in coming, and I detect a certain emotion in his reply: “As a person who never saw myself as a lawyer, in that time-honoured sense of the word, it shows that there is tremendous scope for different types of people within the community of solicitors in this country.

It’s a reflection of the openness in the profession, and I think that’s a wonderful testament, notwithstanding the imperfections that any organisation has. My parents would be delighted if they were here to see it. The fact that somebody like me could manage to achieve this height – it’s wonderful!

“I feel extraordinarily privileged, not only to be president, but to have been a solicitor over the years in circumstances where I wasn’t exactly the ideal candidate, one might say, because of my reading difficulties.

“For me personally, it will bring my career to a lovely conclusion – that at least I’ll be able to say that I achieved that position.”

During his term, James plans to focus on encouraging greater friendship in the profession. “Many solicitors and their staff are feeling desperate, isolated and lonely,” he said.

“Friendship, allied with mindfulness and mental health, contain the vitally important ingredients for personal development. These are needed to underpin a healthy work/life balance and a positive personal life.”

Overdue recognition

He is also keen to mark the long service of more than 1,570 solicitors around the country. “I plan to celebrate and honour all solicitors who have been on the roll for 40 years and more by presenting them with a celebration package that will include a bronze plaque.

“Recognising the important role that our younger solicitors will play, it is key that we value the solicitors of the future by engaging with our students.

“I will be actively seeking the involvement of young solicitors in Law Society activities so that they will feel invested in the workings of the profession. The gala dinner next autumn will focus on our younger solicitors.”

James is conscious that 2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Law Society representing solicitors in the 26 counties. Many bar associations share the same longevity. The new president will be encouraging them to start compiling their associations’ histories.

In addition, he looks forward to attending meetings of the Law Society with the presidents, secretaries and PROs of the bar associations, regarding them as good sounding boards.

He is animated about the establishment of the Society’s new Practice Support Task Force. This will act as a champion for the wider profession in the work of small practices, and will support members and member services generally.

“The goal will be to identify the issues affecting smaller firms, and to act as a sounding board for the challenges facing them,” he says. “The task force will consider and advocate to the Society’s Council for initiatives that will support firms in running their businesses, and will help them towards commercial success.”

Overwhelming demands

He believes that solicitors are overwhelmed by the increasing demands of practice – particularly those being increasingly pushed on them by Government, local government, and external agencies.

“The demands on solicitors are coming from every possible direction. Obligations and responsibilities are being foisted on us with little or no consultation. It’s not a badge of honour to be landed with more obligations and responsibilities.

“The obligations being imposed on us are onerous and often carry significant sanctions. We must consider the longer-term effects on our practices, our PI insurance, the regulatory risks, and the effect on the upcoming generation of solicitors.

“We are the target for powerful institutions that offload their responsibilities and, by stealth, channel them in our direction. We must be consulted and agreements reached. I believe that it’s time to call a halt. The message has to be ‘enough is enough’. Solicitors will not lie down and allow endless obligations to be heaped on us.”

Will his stint as Law Society President signal has ‘last hurrah’?

“I’m a sailor masquerading as a lawyer,” he smiles. “My plan is to sail around the world. I have the boat already organised for it. Nothing will stop me, other than bad health. I’m planning to circumnavigate the world.

“Two years from now, I hope to be on my way to South America. I’ll be heading to Argentina for starters. From there, I plan to head around Cape Horn, and who knows where after that!”

Read and print a PDF of this article here.