There is some anxiety, she concedes, about leaving the firm and the tremendous support that a large firm offers.
“There is so much I’m going to miss. I will miss the degree to which I’m looked after centrally. I work with a really great bunch of people. To some extent, I’ll miss the routine – but I’m also really excited,” she says.
In the new year, she muses, she will know that she’s really alive, because of the fear factor.
“That’s part of the reason I’m making the move, though I’m not an adrenalin junkie,” she comments, pointing out that she learned so much as managing partner and has loved the challenge.
“I’ve always thought curiosity is an underrated attribute,” she says of her move and the buzz of the next challenge.
Byrne Collins Moran, on Pembroke Road in Dublin 4, was where Catherine did her traineeship. It subsequently merged with Hanby Wallace and ultimately became ByrneWallace.
“I’m literally a ‘lifer’ with the same firm,” she laughs, recalling that she did work experience with BCM even before her traineeship.
“It’s been a great firm to work with, and I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to do and learn so much here, which is part of the reason for the move. I feel I’d like to do something a bit different now, and I’m looking forward to that next challenge – whatever it may be! If I didn’t make a move now, I’d probably never do it,” she observes.
“ByrneWallace has been a huge part of my life for 29 years. I’ve grown up here. I met my husband here. I have a huge loyalty to the people in ByrneWallace,” she says. “Now I plan to become part of the gig economy, working on various, and varying, projects from the start of 2019.”
In her role as managing partner, Catherine enjoyed leading the business through both external and internal change – and kept the business relevant in a changing market. The firm’s current headcount is 350 staff, with 46 partners.
The plan is to apply her business and legal brain to a variety of projects, some very different from her established expertise as a transactional solicitor specialising in large property transactions and developments.
“My asset class happened to be property and I love a deal. I love getting a deal closed and I love all the constituent elements,” she reveals, adding that she relishes the intellectual rigour that comes with it.
Over the next five to ten years, Catherine believes the way law firms deliver their services will change radically due to technology. And this will allow for radically different ways of working.
ByrneWallace offers different arrangements to staff, including part-time, flexibility around hours, and some working from home.
“We have always tried to offer the best fit for the person. To get the best people, you need to be open to suggestions of flexibility, within reason.”
Colleagues in their 20s and 30s have a different perspective on life, Catherine believes, and in some ways they “have it sussed”, she says. “They look at what was required from people of my vintage and have decided that there are some compromises they are not willing to make.
“They are whip-smart, extremely well-educated, and so articulate. Their innate confidence and their innate belief in themselves make them more forthright about expressing that.
“When I was growing up through the system, to some extent I was led by the nose. You almost followed a pre-determined path.
“From my experience, I think that there is an expectation among the next generation of lawyers that their careers will be, to some extent, curated and they will be mentored. They are more focused on making positive decisions around what they want in life.”
Catherine observes wryly that, when making job offers to newly qualified solicitors, she ended up being grilled in detail about why they should accept the job.
“My first experience involved me being interviewed for two-and-a-half hours, in a very respectful and focused way. She was testing me about what my vision was for the business as managing partner and, in other words, why she should tether her career to ByrneWallace.
“To my shame, I was not wholly prepared for this, though I was always aware that giving a job wasn’t a gift, as there are two sides to it. There has to be a meeting of minds.”
So, ‘millennial thinking’ is different but, while self-esteem may present as higher, Catherine isn’t sure how deep it runs at other levels: “These are confident and articulate people, very presentable and polished, and that can sometimes lead us to assume that they don’t need to be nurtured.”
While Catherine says that Brexit is not a good thing for Ireland, she doesn’t see it as a particular threat to Irish law firms.
“I suspect there will be more competition in the market. Some of the British firms have already come in,” she says. “I wouldn’t be so naïve to say it’s wholly an opportunity, but I always look for an upside. For our particular sector, I don’t think that the competition is something to be terribly fearful about.
“I think the market in Ireland is very well served. I suspect that the British firms who are coming into the Irish market have predominantly done it for reasons associated with their existing client base, who may be moving or already have a base in Ireland, as opposed to necessarily coming in with the sole aim of competing and disrupting.”
Catherine believes that the affordability of technology is a much more serious challenge to Irish law.
Big ticket technology
“Big-ticket technology, such as data-mining software, is completely doable by most firms, but there is a cost in terms of time and commitment,” she points out.
The vast majority of law firms in Ireland are smaller firms, and their ability to keep up and compete, in time and investment, is a huge factor.
“Those who have the resources to do things differently and more efficiently and more quickly are going to be considerably more successful than those who don’t.”
ByrneWallace has put a lot of work into IT, and its cousins – data and cyber-security. It was the first top ten law firm in Ireland with ISO accreditation.
“That was a huge commitment in man and woman hours. It was a big project, but it’s hugely important to ensure that, across all layers of the business, handling and managing data are completely covered off.” And it has been worth it in terms of business and as a mark of quality in how the business is run, she believes.
“It allows us to sleep better at night,” she concedes, particularly post-GDPR, when the penalties for data breaches are so severe. And she believes that the quality mark gives clients additional confidence that ByrneWallace is a well-run business.
Catherine is surprised that there has not been more consolidation activity in the Irish legal market in the past few years.
“I had thought that the market was ripe for it, that there were very good reasons to combine and consolidate, because there is strength in critical mass as clients’ demands for legal services change.”
Catherine attributes the lack of consolidation to the sturdy independent-mindedness of the Irish profession, particularly owners and partners with their own businesses. “The culture is quite different to other jurisdictions, where they are quite open to talk of mergers.”
Lawyers are private
It is quite a different attitude in Ireland, where lawyers are very private about their business and cautious about even considering consolidation, Catherine observes. She also detects a considerable shift in consumer expectations, and a change in how they value or respect certain legal services.
The value attributed to certain legal input has declined to some extent, she believes. “Clients may not want to pay for the risk involved or expertise required to do things that are still complex and time-consuming.
Some activities and processes have become commoditised, even though they are not any simpler than they were ten years ago.”
Legal services must evolve and adapt in response, she says, and the introduction of so much regulation into the Irish market, across all industry sectors, is clearly an opportunity for lawyers.
Ireland’s significant levels of regulation are the response to some of the cataclysmic events that happened when there were insufficient controls, Catherine believes.
Yet, despite the challenges, people are still spilling enthusiastically into law as a career choice, she says, praising the more recent alliance of legal training with language, commercial and IT training.
Looking back on the financial crash, Catherine describes the national mood as “bad humour, with swathes of commercial developments stalled and halted by the banking crisis”.
There was a lot of work done that never materialised into bricks and mortar because of the crash.
“It was very stressful for those who were in the teeth of it,” she says, describing those developers she dealt with as solid business people who were often dragged inadvertently into the fallout of the crash.
“A lot of people affected found and demonstrated phenomenal levels of resilience and bravery,” she says, accepting that this may not be a popular view, and there are layers of complexity to what happened.
Ultimately, a lot of people held it together and did the right thing, and emerged stronger and wiser from the crash, including Catherine herself.
She sees the boom cycle repeating itself, but hopes that the Government will take the lead on positioning high-level and expensive projects outside of the capital.
The legal world will no doubt be watching Catherine’s next move with interest.