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Kilkenny conference call

Kilkenny conference call
ALL PICS: Cian Redmond

This year’s sold-out President’s Conference

This year’s fully subscribed President’s Conference, held in Mount Juliet, Kilkenny, proved a major hit with members due to its practical advice from in-house and external experts. Mark McDermott reports.

The Law Society’s annual conference made a very welcome return this year – repackaged, rebranded, and reborn – after a three-year hiatus imposed on the profession by the global pandemic.

Kilkenny conference call

Kilkenny conference call

But it was far from ‘business as usual’ and more like ‘business on steroids’. If you thought you were heading to the stunning Mount Juliet in Kilkenny on 12 May solely to kick back, then you hadn’t read the brochure very closely!

R&R would come only after five or more hours of intensive presentations from a list of largely home-grown and talented presenters – all experts in their fields and anxious to ensure that each participant got excellent value for their hard-earned cash.

We all know about the challenges and opportunities that the profession has faced in recent times. We weren’t exactly in newsflash territory either as speakers spoke about the challenges and opportunities facing small, medium, and larger-sized law firms – both now and into the future.

But what was new – and very welcome – was the hard-won advice, tips, and traps shared by those experts, making this one of the most practical, money-saving, and money-generating conferences for members for many years.

Smart tools

Welcoming her audience, Law Society President Maura Derivan advised members to take advantage of all the smart tools and directions provided by the speakers, which would point their business, in weather terms, towards ‘fair’. (For the millennials who’ve never seen an old-fashioned – or should that be ‘vintage’ – hall barometer, ‘fair’ is ‘good’!) But it wasn’t all about making or maintaining profitable practices – the all-important work/life balance got plenty of airtime.

Before introducing the speakers, the president revisited several of the themes she has been airing in her monthly message in the Gazette. Access to justice has been a major concern, as has been the issue of the rule of power versus the rule of law.

“Who would have thought that any of us, in our generation, would see a land war in Europe’s backyard?” the president asked. But while it was important to focus on the war in Ukraine and to support our fellow Europeans in their right to preserve their territorial sovereignty, the ‘rise of power versus access to justice’ was “now taking place right here on our own doorstep”, President Derivan said.

“I’m referring to several pieces of legislation, including the Planning Bill that is currently going through the Houses of the Oireachtas. You’ll all be aware that there were initial concerns, which have continued, over the restriction of rights of the ordinary individual who, if the legislation remains unchanged, will find that they face significant difficulties if they try to bring judicial reviews against planning proposals that they oppose.

“The legal profession needs to ensure that the voice of our people continues to be heard,” the president added, “and to ensure that fairness in terms of access to justice continues, so that one sector of society isn’t ruling over everyone else.”

Crystal-ball gazing

Mark Garrett, the Society’s director general, brought matters even closer to home. Referring to the recent survey of the profession carried out by the Law Society, he allowed us to stare briefly into his crystal ball, with the warning that “if we’ve learned anything in the last decade or more, it’s been that it can be a bit of a mug’s game, because predicting the future is becoming more and more difficult”.

The DG referred to the major trends that he sees having an impact on the profession, which could be regarded as both challenges and opportunities. “We see technology, digital-isation, and increased regulation as having significant impacts. Those come up in the Law Society’s survey, as do the changing expectations of those already in the workplace – and those joining or about to join law firms.”

He referred to the prof-ession’s past – specifically this year’s commemoration of the centenary of the first women to become solicitors in Ireland. “If we go back to 1923, there were 1,000 solicitors in Ireland. It took 75 years for that to grow to 4,500 solicitors. In the last 25 years, we’ve grown from 4,500 solicitors to almost 12,000 practising solicitors. So, there’s been huge growth in the profession in a relatively short period of time.”

Added to that, the Law Society currently has the largest number of trainees in its history going through the Education Centre – almost 2,000 currently – revealing a “huge demand for people to get into the profession, which is still very attractive for a lot of people”.

In addition, Ireland was now being promoted internationally, with overseas trade missions promoting Ireland as a dest-ination for law.

But while all of these were very positive developments, the director general pointed to the significant challenges ahead for many counties in Ireland. He cited the fact that there are currently 11 counties in Ireland that have either one or no trainee solicitor preparing to enter the profession:

“Three counties have no trainees whatsoever at the moment. And if we think about that in terms of access to solicitors and access to justice, whether that be a family-law case or a legal-aid case, there are significant problems down the line in five to 20 years. These are challenges for all sides of the profession – and for other professionals, too.”

Survey glimpse

He gave us a glimpse of the Law Society’s recent survey, which suggests that the top three concerns for the profession, from the smallest to the largest firms, are cybersecurity and cybercrime, recruitment and talent retention, and retirement and succession planning.

Garrett commented that each of these could be considered both threats and opportunities. His challenge, then, to the Law Society and the profession was not simply the need to understand where the future lay, but how we would adapt to the changes and challenges that would inevitably confront us. “Predicting the future isn’t sufficient in itself,” he said. “The Law Society and the solicitors’ profession, together, must shape the future. We’ve got a job of work to do to make that a reality in the ten years ahead,” he concluded.

Green economy

Other speakers included Paul Healy, CEO of Skillnet Ireland, who spoke about the new opportunities for the legal profession.

“In a rising age of tech, you’re already dealing with issues around AI, for example.” He pointed out, however, that only 27% of employers are currently providing information and communications technology training to their teams.

Healy predicted that the economy would begin to pivot on the basis of “green, skilled jobs” and that the higher-education and lifelong learning systems would focus on the so-called ‘green’ economy.

Taking a deep dive into the recruitment and retention concerns expressed by members, Sarah Kelly (of legal recruitment agency The Panel) addressed the topic of attracting and retaining solicitors, trainees, and support staff and identifying potential successors to your practice.

“It’s very ‘boomy’ at the moment. It’s very much a candidate-driven market; however, we’re finding that candidates are much more difficult to manage. They need really close management during the hiring process.

“So, if you’re in the process of hiring, you’ve got to keep a close eye on them, as they’re getting multiple offers,” Kelly said. “I’m sure you’ve had situations where you’ve made an offer to somebody, only to discover that they have multiple offers – or that they go back to their original firm to negotiate a better deal based on current offers.

“So, they have lots of choice, particularly the two-to-six-year PQE levels. The establishment of several international legal firms in the Irish market has had a huge knock-on effect when recruiting candidates.”

Top recruit requests

“The top requests at the moment – no surprise – relate to flexible working arrangements, hybrid-working, part-time working, remote working.”

In addition, candidates have been reporting back that they’re looking for an inclusive and supportive environment when they’re joining a new firm. They want to work in environments where they can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, she said.

“This is a term that’s probably come down from the multinational organisations over the last couple of years. It’s no longer the case that you have to conceal the fact that you have childcare arrangements, pick-up collections, that you’re looking after elderly parents, and you need to take time to get home to them.

“They’re looking to join a firm where there’s an investment in their future – where there are career opportunities and a genuine career path. They want growth and development opportunities. They also like to know that their personal values are aligned with the values of the firm, or vice versa – that might be around corporate social responsibility; environmental, social and governance; and diversity and inclusion.”

Thorny topic

Rounding off the business session for the day, Sorcha Hayes (the Society’s head of practice regulation) addressed the thorny topics of practice viability and expansion, mergers, succession, and retirement. She tackled the regulatory issues around expanding and buying a practice, as well as succession, incapacity, and closure.

It was the kind of information you thought you knew, but realised that you could get out of your depth very quickly. Hayes was at pains to point out that the Law Society’s Practice Regulation Section and the Regulation Department are only too happy to assist members with any queries they might have on this or any other regulatory questions. (You can email Sorcha at s.hayes@lawsociety.ie, and keep an eye on the Gazette for future practice regulation features.)

So, at the end of a long but instructive day, we eventually managed to soak up the sunshine at Mount Juliet, enjoying the expansive sweep of treelined countryside that forms an impressive backdrop for the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. Had Tiger Woods popped out of the locker room to take a few practice swings on the driving range, we wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

Keeping an eye on the giant Rolex clock, it was soon time to converge with colleagues in the McCalmont Suite for the gala dinner and to share stories with old and new friends.

I won’t name the mischievous individual who regaled us with a glorious tale of having slept in Jeremy Irons’s bed in his famous Cork castle – minus Jeremy, it should be said. Let’s just say that, hopefully, Jeremy wasn’t hiding out in his larger-than-life replica Trojan Horse, spying on the shenanigans as his new bed was installed and tested out for size!  

Mark McDermott is editor of the Law Society Gazette.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.