She ‘Kangoo dances’ wearing the boots, each weighing in at 2.5kg. Not exactly Strictly, then, although Michele has participated in ‘Strictly Sligo’ to raise money for the Sligo Musical Society. “If I’m going on holidays, my Kangoo boots come with me.
“I find that physical fitness gives you a sharpness of mind, there’s no question about that. It’s also the feel-good factor with endorphin release. I’m lucky to be living in Sligo, where I’m close to Rosses Point, Strandhill and Mullaghmore. I love the outdoor life. I regularly take a run in the mornings, around 7am, when the weather’s fine.”
She acknowledges the stress that most practitioners suffer as a result of their legal careers. “Like many professions, it can be extremely stressful, but that’s the nature of our work. Fortunately, the Law Society has already commissioned independent research on mental health and wellbeing in the profession.”
Knockin’ on heaven’s door
“We launched our Professional Wellbeing Project on 7 October, to address the needs identified. This provides practical supports, education and guidance across three pillars: workplace culture, resilience and wellbeing, and emotional and psychological health. I would encourage all practitioners to visit the Professional Wellbeing Hub at www.lawsociety.ie.”
Michele is an exponent of excellent work/life balance practices. “The fact that I’m in a two-solicitor practice allows me to achieve that, because we can decide what work to take on, or what work to refuse. Generally, I try not to bring work home – though, like all solicitors running a busy practice, that’s not always possible. But you’ve got to aim for the ideal.
“Returning to the issue of physical fitness, I firmly believe that it’s a great way of coping with stress. If you’re physically agile, you’re mentally agile, and I think that exercise is one of the best stress-busters out there.”
Welcome to the jungle
As the Law Society’s 149th president, Michele becomes just the fourth female president in the history of the solicitors’ profession. Despite that, she says she “just fell into law. I never ever anticipated when I was a Leaving Cert student in the Ursuline College that I would become a lawyer, and certainly that I would ever lead the profession.”
When she and her sister Dervilla finished secondary school, they spent a year in a school in Bordeaux, brushing up on their French and immersing themselves in French culture.
“When we returned, we headed for NUIG. Both of us studied French with law and economics.” Out of a class of 150 students, the top 20 got to progress to second year. Michele and Dervilla were among them.
In Galway, Michele was selected to represent the college in an inter-university competition for French language skills. That resulted in a diploma from the French Embassy, and reaped the benefit of a tutor for a semester of law through French.
She went on to complete an LLB and remembers applying for the Bar, but a postal strike intervened. The Bar’s loss was the Law Society’s gain. She was encouraged to apply for a training contract with two Sligo law firms, both of which accepted her. She opted for Horan Monahan.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the firm’s partners, Ray Monahan, was a Law Society Council member. The year I qualified, he was serving as president, and I was very honoured to receive my parchment from him. Knowing now the significance of his role on Council, and the impact he made as president, makes me feel privileged to follow in his footsteps.”
A little over a year after qualifying as solicitors, Michele and Dervilla decided to set up their own practice in Sligo, which they continue to run to this day. “We were extremely lucky, because we set up around 1994/95, the start of the economic boom,” says Michele.
“Because my parents were business people, we had lots of business contacts, so we started off with a distinct advantage. After the first 12 months, we realised that we could make a long-term living out of it. We didn’t have the initial financial worry of expensive overheads because we owned the premises, so it just made the transition easy.
“There’s no doubt that we could have grown to become a much larger practice.We didn’t want the headaches of managing a large office, and our current practice suits our lifestyles very well. It was a conscious lifestyle choice.
“My area is litigation – anything contentious – so it’s mostly personal injuries litigation, employment law and family law. Dervilla does all the probate work, conveyancing, landlord and tenant law, and everything in between.”
Do they ever squabble?
“We’re very fortunate, because we’re very different people and we have different interests in terms of the practice. It works extremely well. I know we’ve been very fortunate. Becoming president, it’s very important to have a partner who is supportive of that role, who will enable me to be the best president I can be, and who understands that my absence from the office is inevitable.”
Michele refers to an “entrepreneurial streak” in the family. “My father Harry was a very hard worker, with great business acumen, but he had no interest in money. He had a great sense of social justice.
“I am the youngest of three children and, I suppose, because of that, I had a very special relationship with him. When he passed away on 11 April 2010, it was a defining moment in my life because, up to that point, I had never thought about mortality. I now identify with the importance of living life to its fullest, because life is fragile and short.”
The entrepreneurial side is supplemented by the creativity of her mother Nano. “She worked in business with my father, and served as a company director in her own right. Aside from that, though, she has always been very creative.”
Her feeling on become president is one of pride, mixed with trepidation. “I know that the role of president is about leadership, and leadership is about privilege – it’s not about power. And privilege brings with it great responsibility. I don’t underestimate the responsibility of the position I hold.
“I’m not going to promise that I’m going to be a transformative president or that I’m going to outshine other presidents. What I can and will promise is that I’ll do the very best I can, because I do want to make my profession proud. I want to leave a very positive mark to the shape of our profession by the end of my 12-month term – both nationally and internationally.”
Another woman who looms large in her experience is the profession’s first female president – the late, great Moya Quinlan. “She never considered her gender to be a feature in her success – and neither do I,”
She draws attention to the significance of her appointment taking place during the centenary year of women being allowed to enter the solicitors’ profession – and at a time when over 51% of solicitors are female.
“So much great work has been done over the past number of years within the Society and the profession on the important issue of equality. One of my key priorities will be promoting women in leadership throughout the profession, through the Society’s mentoring programme.”
Get in the ring
With her practice background, she aims to focus on strengthening and supporting smaller practices and sole practitioners during her term of office. What does she have to say to those within the profession who say that there’s no place for smaller practices or sole practitioners – that they simply don’t have the necessary skillsets, the administrative backup, or technical ability to run a modern-day practice?
“Well, I say that the reality is that more than 30% of practitioners come within the cohort of smaller practices. I do believe that there is very much a role for smaller practices. I also know that it can be very difficult and very challenging for sole practitioners, and I can understand why they would be minded to merge where possible – though merging can bring its own challenges.
“While I’m very fortunate to work in a two-solicitor practice where things work very well, that isn’t always the case for other firms. Earlier this year, the Law Society rolled out a roadmap for smaller practices to assist them in, not only staying in business, but growing their businesses.
“The Small Practice Support Project helps sole practitioners and smaller firms to grow and achieve greater success for their clients, their firms and their local communities. It offers tools and resources to efficiently manage and grow our practices. These are available at the Small Practice Business Hub on the Law Society’s website.
“Particularly outside of Dublin and the larger cities, there will always be a role for smaller practices. I still believe that people trust their family’s lawyer and we must build on that level of trust to strengthen our businesses.”
One in a million
“I believe, too, however, that sole practitioners can feel very isolated and very alone, but what’s very important is that sole practitioners should realise that they have a network of colleagues in their local bar associations to whom they can reach out whenever necessary.
“I’m greatly enthused by the pilot project that the Law Society will soon roll out in Sligo for smaller practices and sole practitioners. My aim is to see this being extended across the country so that our smaller practices can thrive.”
Michele is a member of the Government-led Legal Services Implementation Group. “Through this group, the Government and the legal professions aim to position Ireland as a leading centre of international legal services,” she says.
The 10k in Helsinki was for the Bone Marrow for Leukaemia Trust. I caught the fitness bug and stumbled across Kangoo Jump boots, which have since become something of a passion.”
“While Brexit has proven increasingly complicated, there is now an opportunity for Ireland, and for solicitors, to position our legal services at the forefront. After Brexit, Ireland will be the only English-speaking common law jurisdiction in the EU, and we plan to capitalise on such strengths.”
And at the end of it all, having reached the pinnacle of her career, what will be at the top of her bucket list?
“I think a sky dive, wearing my Kangoo boots, perhaps!”
And what happens at the end of the drop?
“I’ll bounce back up again!”