“There’s no way you can ever prepare for this kind of scenario,” she muses. “It all escalated within a couple of weeks.”
But, 14 years later, she says that that part of her life is in the past. Sue puts her resilience in the face of adversity down to the fantastic support of her husband and family – as well as her military training as a reservist in the Defence Forces.
“I got a great training. It helped me to compartmentalise my difficulties. It enables you to stop the anxiety about things that are beyond your control. I got back on my feet pretty quickly. Clients rowed in behind me, and I’ve had my own business since then” [late 2004].
Sue points out that, like a lot of people, she didn’t actually choose to be a sole practitioner: “Circumstances led to that situation, and that happens to a lot of people. But I’ve been really happy with my life since that unpleasantness. Maybe I got the bad luck out of the way early,” she surmises.
“One of the things I would tell my 29-year-old self is that it would all work out. I’ve also gained a ton of confidence.”
The unpleasant events also propelled Sue to get very involved in the Dublin Solicitors’ Bar Association (DSBA) because she realised that, as a sole practitioner, she needed the support of friends and colleagues. Now she is on the DSBA’s management committee and is the association’s CPD director. Separately, she spent six years on the Law Society’s Guidance and Ethics Committee.
Sue now runs a highly successful litigation practice in Coolock, on Dublin’s northside. She cleverly situated her office within walking distance of 900 houses. Most of her loyal employees are local people.
“I’m at the sweet spot in terms of the size of the practice. I have a great team and I’m really enjoying it.”
The practice never has to market itself, running entirely on referrals, but Sue understands that the firm is only as good as her last successful case.
Last year, she completed training as a notary public and is planning to complete a master’s in maritime law in the future. She describes having to change her priorities with the birth of her third child, who has special needs, though this was not finally diagnosed until he was three.
“The realisation that your son is different dawns on you slowly. Intellectual disability is not something you discover immediately. The worst bit was before he was diagnosed – we had been to doctor after doctor because I knew that there was something wrong from when he was eight months.”
Life was easier once he was diagnosed, aged three, Sue says. Her son’s needs led to a new involvement with the L’Arche Ireland community for those with intellectual disabilities – Sue is chair of the Dublin branch. The arrival of a special needs assistance dog called Ruby has also had a transformative effect on the family.
But stress and anxiety are never far from the door for a sole practitioner. Sue points out that the clients that solicitors meet in general practice are, in general, “stressed off their heads” and dealing with problematic situations, such as a personal injury or matrimonial difficulties.
As a seasoned practitioner, she has often had to unpick messes caused by clients failing to take proper legal advice.
She worries that people conducting their own litigation can end up with permanent consequences they didn’t intend, particularly in relation to ‘DIY divorces’ and pension-adjustment orders.
Now, with her passionate interest in legal education, Sue is very excited to be on the Law Society’s Curriculum Development Unit. She wants to bring her love of legal rules to the role.
Sue describes herself as “ruthlessly practical” in pushing for clear explanations of court rules. She co-authored the third edition of Civil Procedure in the Circuit Court with barrister Karl Dowling, a reference book that clearly indexes all the key points practitioners need.
“It’s always astonishing to me about how little colleagues, and even counsel, know about the rules of court. There is a lacuna. The rules aren’t taught as a distinct subject, whereas the New York Bar exam is all procedural.
“If practitioners are aware of the rules and are applying them, cases go more smoothly – they are quicker, cheaper and more efficient to run, because the rules provide us with a structure and a frame. So, rather than fighting them, embrace the rules!” she urges.
She worries about the isolation experienced by many solicitors, adding that “law is a stressful and highly responsible occupation”.
She brings her trainees to hear disciplinary cases against solicitors being heard by High Court President Peter Kelly. “I make them sit there and listen,” she says. “And they are horrified.”
It’s probably a little bit cruel, she concedes, but she encourages her trainees to reflect on how bright, well-trained young solicitors can go from qualification to being struck off with a few wrong moves – and, often, in only a few short years.
Sue comments that Mr Justice Kelly, who is charged with strike-offs, is a person of great humanity: “I’m always moved by how he treats people with compassion and humanity and politeness,” she says.
Why do things go wrong for solicitors?
“Solicitors are not business people,” Sue says, “and they often fail to understand the cash-flow cycle. There’s no shame in a business failing. It happens all the time. But, for some reason, solicitors think that it shouldn’t happen to them, and they won’t seek help.”
Sue has learned the value of collegiality in the profession: “If you’re connected to the rest of the profession, you will maintain high standards. It rubs off on you, being around other people.”
It grieves her to see many sole practitioners running into trouble: “I think it’s down to isolation. But lack of business training is a big part of it. A solicitor’s practice is different to any other kind of business, because we are dealing with fiduciary issues, with other people’s money.
“Before people go out to practice on their own, they should have to take a class on cash flow, billing, turnover, profit, VAT, expenses … what’s allowed, and what isn’t. I’m not aware of any formal training for solicitors in these matters. If solicitors understood the process of billing and legal costs, they would run their cases more efficiently.
“Clients have a gratitude curve and if you don’t get your bills out promptly, people won’t pay them promptly,” she advises.
“I’ve created my own identity,” she concludes, “and I’ve really enjoyed it all. It’s interesting, rewarding work. People trust you with their troubles and it’s my privilege to serve them.”