As a gay woman, Justine says she doesn’t have a dramatic or exciting ‘coming-out story’ or, indeed, any bad experiences to share.
She firmly believes that diversity should not be a tokenistic box-ticking exercise, but a kaleidoscope through which to show the huge and wonderful variety of career and personality types that the legal profession supports.
“We are all different,” she says. “We can show the breadth of opportunity and the diversity of the profession without ticking boxes.
“I’ve never thought of myself as any different from anybody else. I only expected to be judged on my own personality, how I get on with my colleagues, my work ethic, and the quality of my work.
“[Being gay] wasn’t something I hid, as I am comfortable in myself and in who I am, and I let people take me as they find me.”
Town and country
A convent-educated native of Shannonbridge, Co Offaly, Justine has a very typical and relatable rural Irish background – her late father was a farmer, while her mother ran a guesthouse.
The youngest of five, she credits her parents for instilling a great love of education and for always providing her with opportunities to learn and improve herself through extra-curricular activities, whether playing the piano or horse-riding. “I have a great work ethic, and I definitely would attribute that to my parents, watching them juggle the farm, B&B, and five children.”
Justine studied law at the University of Limerick but believes that her love of law really ignited when she began her training contract in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, in Mallon’s Solicitors, a small general practice.
“Once I started working, everything just clicked, between the theoretical side of law and the practical side. That’s when I really started to love the law, and my job,” says Justine.
She qualified during the 2008 recession, which crystallised her sense of privilege at being kept on after her traineeship, as she watched colleagues and friends losing their jobs and emigrating.
Attention to detail
She loved her time in Monaghan and credits her training solicitor, Seamus Mallon, with giving her advice and guidance throughout her traineeship and career.
“Seamus acted as a mentor to me, even though it wasn’t a formal mentoring relationship. I don’t think he was aware that he was a mentor to me!
“Solicitor Sinead O’Brien in the practice put a great emphasis on the technical side of the law and attention to detail. I remember her always spending the time to teach and explain. Only when I matured myself, I thought wasn’t she great to take the time out of her day to make sure that I received a thorough training. I was very fortunate to get a very practical hands-on training,” she recalls.
She spent ten years in Monaghan, eventually moving to work at the Office of the State Solicitor, Barry Healy, as her reputation for hard work grew.
It was during this time that she met her partner of ten years. They registered their civil partnership in June 2012, with both of their families present to enjoy the day.
A move to Dublin in 2015 made practical sense, given that Justine’s partner was working in Dublin.
“Had I not met my partner Davina, I probably would have gone on to open my own practice in Monaghan. I’d been ten years there, and I had a reputation built up. Monaghan has everything you’d need from a town – good restaurants, good pubs, gyms, a cinema. Everyone was just so friendly and very welcoming.”
Change of heart
“Hand on heart, I’ve never received any different treatment. It never was an issue. We are lucky that Irish society, in general, has progressed so much in the last number of years, and that many firms and organisation have embraced the idea of diversity and inclusion.”
She says that she did initially avoid questions about her personal life. A chance meeting with her boss one weekend, while with her then girlfriend, prompted a change of heart.
“On the Monday morning, I went straight into Seamus and said that I had something to tell him – that the girl he saw me with at the weekend was actually my girlfriend. Seamus just smiled at me, and said that he’d figured that one out for himself, asked me all about her, said very good, then moved on to ask about the files for court.
“That was literally the end of it. It was a relief to me because it was out there. A big effort was made to always invite me and my girlfriend to all social events. Looking back, it was an inclusive workplace and community without having any formal policies in place.”
Mover and shaker
Good time-management really stood to her for her next move – to corporate firms in Dublin – first Gartlan Furey and then ByrneWallace.
“At ByrneWallace, the property department was led by a strong leadership team in the form of Michael Walsh and Alison O’Sullivan. I enjoyed the challenge of being a transaction property lawyer.
“The firm has an inclusive culture where diversity, as well as integrity and excellence, are embraced. I think that was one of the reasons why I loved working there.”
She believes that coming from a country practice to Dublin gave her a more well-rounded legal experience.
The principles of conveyancing are the same, no matter where you are, she notes. “In the country, it’s called a list of closing documents; in Dublin, it’s ‘completion deliverables’!” she laughs.
In 2013, she got a call from Law Society Council member James MacGuill, who asked her whether she would consider standing for election. “I didn’t see it as seeking out a leadership role in the Law Society – it just happened naturally, as I had been so active in the Monaghan Bar Association.”
Justine was duly elected, though admits now that she was naïve as to the procedural formalities involved compared with running a local bar association. “I probably prefer the work on committees, which are more practical and hands on,” she says. “I enjoy a good project.”
This year, Justine is chair of the Guidance and Ethics Committee, which has been tasked with updating the guide to good professional conduct (last updated in 2013), which is a fundamental part of solicitor education and practice.
She urges solicitors of all backgrounds to get involved in the profession’s leadership, with their local bar association as an obvious starting point. She is also anxious to dispel any perception that the Council is male-dominated or in any way non-inclusive: “Everybody’s opinion is valued, is heard, and is listened to on Council, and people from diverse backgrounds are genuinely welcome in the decision-making space.
"Everyone contributes in their own way and each contribution is valued. You don’t have to bark the loudest to make a valued contribution to the Law Society,” she notes.
“The Law Society is fortunate to have a macro view of the profession and the structures that exist within it,” says Justine. “It’s great to see that it has embraced the concept of diversity – diversity of opinion is critical for success. I don’t think any captain would field a team where everyone had just one skill or strength. It’s the same for the Law Society, so I encourage those from a country practice to get involved.”
She also encourages all firms to sign the Law Society’s diversity and inclusion charter, to show their commitment to supporting those qualities in their firm.
The time commitment is real, however, for either Council or committee work.
“We do need to make it easier for people to get involved in leadership roles in the Law Society, as we are all time poor. The use of technology can enable a more efficient way of working and attending meetings, which would allow for a more geographically diverse Council and committees.”
Several years on, Justine reflects that being ‘out’ at work meant, for her, getting on with things with confidence. “You can build better relationships because you are no longer concentrating on watching where a conversation is going.
“Coming out can be exhausting for some people, particularly at work, because you might not want to share your personal life in your work environment,” Justine reflects. “I think that there are several stages of coming out. The first is personal acceptance, that you are happy with who you are. For me, that was in college in Limerick, in my early 20s, but there was no dramatic announcement.
“After that, there is social acceptance, that you are actually happy being who you are socially, and that you’re not hiding that part of your life from your family or friends.
“The third part is professional acceptance, but not everyone chooses to come out at work or chooses to share personal information about their home life, regardless of whether they are gay or not, or from a minority group or not. You have to respect those people as well, who choose not to share their personal life for whatever reason.
“However, I do believe that if work environments are open and inclusive, people will know themselves that it’s not an issue if they choose to come out and share their personal life at work.”
Holding the course
Lockdown prompted Justine to begin a master’s in education and training in DCU. “It’s one side of my job that I really enjoy, giving Law Society tutorials and teaching and training. So I thought this year was perfect timing to undertake a course.”
She reflects that, in her college experience, case law didn’t seem very relevant – but good teaching in the practical, technical side of the law made all the difference.
“I’ve never left a Law Society Council or committee meeting without learning something, be it positive or negative. That’s one of the things I really like about it,” she reflects. “I love the collegiality, on the Guidance and Ethics, and on the In-House and Public Sector Committees.
“It’s a great way of meeting new colleagues – and if you ever need to pick up the phone to somebody, you have a network of people to call on. I like that colleagues know that I sit on committees and the Council, and that they can reach out for guidance or a steer in the right direction if needed.”
Justine recognises that it can be hard to be a trailblazer for diversity – for example, as the first woman on a board or the only gay person in a group. “What we learn can make the path easier for the next person. This is why I felt it was important for me to do this interview, even though I have no dramatic stories to tell.
“I think I have a personal responsibility, that if there is somebody coming up the ranks, who might like to get involved, to reassure people that everybody’s voice and contribution is valued in the Law Society, be it on Council or on the committees.”
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