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Stony grey soil

Stony grey soil
Lynda Smyth All pics: Manuel Lavery

A clear perspective on work in a rural practice



Lynda Smyth speaks to Mary Hallissey about the challenges of helping to run a busy practice while raising four children under the age of nine.

Mother of four Lynda Smyth is a busy solicitor working in a provincial practice that caters to a wide farming and SME clientele in the hinterland of Castleblayney, Co Monaghan.

A partner in Coyle, Kennedy, Smyth (founded in 1906), the Ballybay native has some acute observations on how legal practice has changed since she qualified. Coming from a business background, she knows that it’s not about competition on fees alone – in a rural practice, you have to have a good rapport with your clients.

Stony grey soil

Stony grey soil

“Clients want to feel a connection with you – you get to know them, their businesses, and their families. The concept of the ‘family solicitor’ is still very strong in rural practices. One of the main challenges for any solicitor in private practice is the level of fees that are charged. Clients are a lot more conscious of their legal spending, and often aren’t aware of the work involved in a transaction. They continually want better value for money, so this means solicitors must be increasingly competitive in the fees they charge.”

Conveyancing, probate and litigation are still the bread-and-butter of the country practice. And increased regulation has resulted in greater responsibility and pressure on smaller practices, she muses. “It can be hard to keep on top of all the regulatory and management requirements and still get your work done,” she concedes. “The buck stops with you on everything, and that can be stressful.”

A country practice

Conveyancing has become increasingly complex, with a lot more administrative work. The responsibility for these increased administrative burdens falls squarely on the shoulders of the legal practitioner.

“I find conveyancing is a lot more time-consuming than other types of legal work. While, in many ways, the title system hasn’t changed – and has even simplified – the introduction of extra [property-related] taxes all add to the administrative workload of conveyancing-heavy legal practices. It can be time-consuming to explain the various property taxes to clients, and we often end up having to register and pay for these taxes as part of a conveyance. A commercial client would be familiar with these concepts, but many clients are unaware of them.”

Rural property transactions have complexities that urban property transactions may not have, such as wayleaves, visibility agreements, rights of way, and so on. And the farming community has difficult decisions to make in terms of transfer of lands, in that they must weigh up their likely future need for nursing-home care, and where the money for that will come from if they transfer the farm.

“There is a multitude of potential pitfalls when dealing with a conveyance, more so than with probate, litigation or criminal matters,” she says. “You have a certain dread of something going wrong, even though you do your best to do everything right. There is a sense that you are responsible for everything, even mapping and engineering matters, which are obviously not our areas of expertise,” she reflects. “It’s fast-paced and wrinkle-inducing, and not all that lucrative!”

Neighbours

However, Lynda brightens as she speaks glowingly of her wonderfully supportive colleagues. Monaghan solicitors have both an email group and a WhatsApp group, and are happy to share information and knowledge – and the odd joke.

This support is invaluable, she says. “I have some great role models among my Monaghan colleagues – mothers like me who manage to run successful practices and juggle busy home lives.”

Monaghan people are very industrious, she says, with a strong entrepreneurial streak, and they are very fair in their dealings. The proximity to the border breeds ingenuity and resilience, she notes. “They take no nonsense and are straight-talking.”

And there is a high proportion of self-employed people in the county, with many successful homegrown businesses. Monaghan is known for its engineering, construction, and agri-food enterprises – nine out of ten employers in the county are involved in food production.

Many of Lynda’s clients are welcomed in workwear and muddy boots – Lynda doesn’t bat an eyelid due to her farming background. “I dress more informally too. It’s not unusual to find me in runners.” And it’s runners she needs, as she dashes to school pick-ups, the childminder, court, and back home in the evenings to get the children ready for bed – before gearing up for a second shift.

She works extremely long hours, but loves her work because she says there’s always something new to be learned. “I love the variety of a general practice, hopping from probate, to personal injuries, crime and property. It’s so interesting – you’re getting an insight into everybody’s life – we have a wee flavour of all these different lives.”

Home and away

It was the same when Lynda was growing up, helping her parents run the family pub and hearing the customers’ stories.

Her parents were also hardworking multi-taskers, being farmers and undertakers, as well as publicans. “There was never a dull moment in our house as kids – if we weren’t serving customers in the bar, we were helping prepare a coffin!

“We were brought up in the pub, as we lived above it, so we ate our dinner, did our homework and entertained our friends in the pub. My siblings and I actually all met our spouses in the family pub.”

While there are no lawyers in her family, Lynda, the youngest of four, was drawn to the law and was the first in her family to go to university – to NUI Galway, where she excelled. This was followed by a training contract at A&L Goodbody, which was a great foundation for a legal career, with excellent methodology and attention to detail.

“When I came to Dublin, I was a bit overwhelmed. I didn’t even know what a bagel was, and there was an entire shop in the IFSC selling bagels!” she laughs.

But ultimately, city life in a big city firm just wasn’t for Lynda. With a house-building project already underway, a future in her home county of Monaghan was always on the cards.

On the day she received her parchment at Blackhall Place, in February 2006, her future husband Damien proposed, slipping a ring on her finger on the James Joyce bridge over the River Liffey. The couple married the following October. “I’m with Damien since I was 18 and he’s a great husband and father – he’s very hands-on at home and supportive to me.

“I’m a home bird,” she confides, and was delighted to be offered a position at Coyle, Kennedy, Smyth when she qualified. “I landed in Monaghan, and it was a steep learning curve in terms of the work they were doing. It was a different kind of law from the commercial work I was trained in.”

Reflecting on the lot of the self-employed professional, Lynda speaks plainly: “Any business is only as good as its referrals, and the principals must stay on top of their game all the time, to keep bringing in business, while working at speed.”

Sons and daughters

But being self-employed has brought its own challenges: “You do have to plan ahead so you have a contingency plan for holidays and maternity leave, and the work is still on your desk when you get back.

“The main benefit I see in terms of being self-employed is the flexibility. You get the work done, but I can collect the kids from school if needed or bring them to a football match.”

Lynda acknowledges that there’s no high-flying lifestyle accruing from work as a rural solicitor, however rewarding and privileged that work may be. Though the cost of living is low in Monaghan, relative to the city, Lynda and her husband and family have a modest, though comfortable life, only because of all their hard work.

Lynda also sacrificed extended time with her four babies and was back at her desk within a few weeks of giving birth each time, often with a nursing newborn in tow.

“It was great to be able to take the babies into work while I was still feeding them. I popped the Moses basket in the corner and worked away. Clients passed no remarks,” she says.

She acknowledges the ‘mammy guilt’, describing how she cried going back to the office without her first baby – instead, the childminder was getting to mind her while she was at work.

With four children under nine, Lynda describes having no free time for herself, but she gets involved in her kids’ activities where possible – she’s even taken to learning the banjo with a group of nine-year-olds!

“In years to come, I’ll probably look back and say returning to the office so soon wasn’t the right thing to do – but at the time I didn’t feel I had any other options, because, in a small practice, you are the product. For anyone self-employed, it can be difficult to take full maternity leave, especially in a small town where you work so hard to build relationships and establish a client base.

“I guess every self-employed mother probably has the same issues. If I take six months’ maternity leave, I’m not generating income for the business, plus putting pressure on my colleagues.

“It can be hard to find a suitable locum,” Lynda adds, “and, of course, you still have to keep yourself when you are off. Your overheads are still there, rent and rates, staff and wages, insurance. And the law changes daily. There are practice directions popping into the inbox regularly.

“For me, it was easier just to go back to work and push through it – but it was hard, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the pressure and the guilt,” she admits.

The secret life of us

While acknowledging that it’s good to have a hunger and something to strive for, at the end of the day Lynda is not driven by financial rewards.

“Being in Monaghan means I’m close to home and close to my family, which means everything to me really. That is my reward. I still work in my parents’ pub on busy occasions, and I’m very close to my parents and siblings, who all live locally.”

The rural practice, like everything else, is changing – and fast. PIAB and the new regime in personal-injury awards will mop up a lot of that business for small practices, she believes.

There is a downward pressure on fees, and many areas of general practice are becoming more specialised. It’s challenging and worrying, but on balance, she loves her work, and jokes: “To be honest, it’s easier to go to work than stay at home with four kids!”

Read and print a PDF of this article here.