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Irish background a ‘distinct advantage’ in high-profile international arbitration role

Wild geese: Erasmus-year romance set Mullingar law graduate Niamh Leinwather on path to a career at Austrian branch of top firm Freshfields

When Niamh Leinwather moved to Vienna as a young law graduate to start an internship with the United Nations, she always had an international career in mind, she says, but qualifying to practise law in Vienna was never part of her “master plan”.

Having since passed the gruelling Austrian bar exam through German (becoming the first Irish woman to do so) and racking up a decade of experience in international arbitration at a magic circle law firm, the Mullingar woman is now the secretary general of the Vienna International Arbitration Centre, the first non-Austrian to take up the role.

Leinwather said that, with arbitration, every case is different, and there is an excitement in becoming a “mini-expert” in subjects from motorway building to gas pricing, as well as working through the legal aspects of a dispute.

“I think that’s the beauty of it; you have all these legal aspects and the specific laws that apply to it, but actually the subject matter is different each time so you get to dabble in areas that you wouldn’t otherwise get to,” she said.


While studying law in UCD, Leinwather completed her Erasmus year at the University of Vienna, and returned to the city after graduating for the UN internship.

“I didn’t really want to go into a law firm straight away, I wanted to do something more international,” she says. “The UN was an obvious choice. I did an internship there and then I actually got a job at the Irish Embassy because Ireland was in the Council of Europe at the time,” she said.

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However, her dreams of diplomacy started to fade, she says, as Vienna stole her heart.

“If you want to do something in diplomacy, you’re tied to staying in Ireland. I felt like that was too limiting, always having to return home. Vienna stole my heart from the beginning,” she said.

After returning to the University of Vienna to complete a Master’s in European Studies, Leinwather ended up qualifying with magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP (Freshfields).

I think Irish people underestimate that, in comparison to other cultures, we are very charming and persuasive. You win over people relatively easily

—  Niamh Leinwather

“After two and a half years in a law firm, you can sit the Austrian bar exam, which I hadn’t really intended on doing, it wasn’t part of my master plan. It’s a difficult exam, it’s very intense, I didn’t really know what I was in for. But I did it and then I qualified, and did international arbitration in Freshfields for 10 years,” she said.

At the global firm, Leinwather said she had the opportunity to work with offices all over the world on cross-border legal issues with other jurisdictions. However, she said her role at a top law firm came with a notoriously tough working environment.

“There’s long working hours and a serious expectation that you’re going to put in the hours and always be available. I think that’s also changing, the culture is changing; the next generation of law students don’t want to sign up for ridiculous hours and weekend work that we would have done back in the day,” she said.

Last year, Leinwather took up her current role leading Vienna’s arbitration institute, managing all ongoing arbitration cases in Vienna, as well as driving initiatives to promote arbitration in the region. She said that as the first non-Austrian to take up the role, being Irish has been a distinct advantage.

“When I was approached about this job, they perceived it as a huge advantage that I was not Austrian. I think it’s a combination of just being international, because it’s the kind of role where they want somebody who’s not necessarily from the region, and also probably a bit of the Irish charm as well,” she said.

“I have the legal background in both Ireland and Austria, the fact that I’m a native English speaker obviously is an advantage, but I think Irish people underestimate that, in comparison to other cultures, we are very charming and persuasive. You win over people relatively easily and it’s not a performance, its authentic, it’s the way we are,” she added.

While she comes home to Ireland every year for Dublin’s International Arbitration Day conference, she says there wouldn’t have been the scope in Ireland to expand her career as she has done in Vienna.

It’s an absolutely beautiful city that has so much to offer. There are a lot of international elements to it, the UN is here.

—  Niamh Leinwather on Vienna

“The advantage of working in Vienna is you get a department completely focused on arbitration, and you can really get immersed in it and do really international transaction-processing whereas, in Ireland, it just isn’t as developed. People end up going to London or Paris or somewhere if they really want to immerse themselves in it,” she said.

But it is not just the work. All the way back in that Erasmus year, she met the man who would become her husband, a moment she describes as a “game-changer” in her life plans. While she does miss Irish people, Leinwather said the lifestyle in Vienna has a draw that will keep her and her family there for the foreseeable future.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful city that has so much to offer. There are a lot of international elements to it, the UN is here, there are so many international organisations here that the community in the city is very international,” she said.

“And there’s the weather and the standard of living. Vienna always wins these prizes that they give out, like ‘best standard of living in Europe’. The winter is really wintry, you can get in your car and drive and go skiing, and the summer is hot and you can get in your car and drive to Budapest or Prague, or down to Croatia or Italy for a long weekend. Which is just so luxurious and not as costly as flying somewhere,” she added.

Ellen O'Regan

Ellen O’Regan

Ellen O’Regan is a contributor to The Irish Times