The toughest rise to the top
LEGAL PROFILE: Imelda McMillan, President of Law Society of Northern Ireland:Running a Belfast jobs project was a key experience before taking up a daunting traineeship, says the head of the North’s Law Society
EVEN AS a graduate fresh out of Queen’s University in 1987, there were telltale signs that Imelda McMillan would one day rise to the upper echelons of her profession. McMillan, president of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, beat off competition from candidates including a retired sergeant major to land her first job.
When only in her early 20s, she was appointed project co-ordinator of an employment scheme in the small Protestant community of Suffolk, in the predominantly Catholic west Belfast. Not only did she find herself co-ordinating a staff of 50, she was the only Catholic working on the project.
Did her religion create problems? “People got over it pretty quickly once they knew I was there to stay,” she says. “I didn’t really have any problems.”
She admits it was daunting, but she was determined to make a success of it. The experience of running the Suffolk project for two years stood to her when she took up a traineeship with Belfast firm O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors, where she is now a partner and head of the property department.
Garret O’Reilly, the principal partner at the time, was a “very hard taskmaster” (though McMillan is keen to stress she has a great relationship with him). “I think other people would have been really daunted by that.”
The experience gained as a community worker gave her the confidence to “square up to him to a certain degree”, whereas most trainees are “in awe” of what’s going on around them.
As with many law firms North and South of the Border, O’Reilly Stewart has had to try to increase revenue streams in areas such as litigation to compensate for the decline in property-related work.
“I think we would have had the same exposure to the property slump in Northern Ireland as in the Republic. Ours was slightly later than yours,” she says. Sole and small practitioners were particularly reliant on property-related work.
“There’s no doubt about it – that has impacted seriously on a lot of practitioners. A lot have had to let staff go. In some cases, I’ve heard that solicitors have had to let family members go.”
It’s not just the decline of the bricks-and-mortar business that’s hitting lawyers in the North – the legal aid budget has been cut significantly.