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.

Not surprisingly, this is an issue of concern to the Law Society, which McMillan says is working very closely with the North’s Minister for Justice David Ford in relation to the level of legal aid fees being paid.

“It’s not just the reduction we’re concerned about,” she says. “We are concerned that there needs to be access to justice for all individuals in Northern Ireland.”

Another change in the landscape of Northern Ireland’s legal sector is the fall in the number of criminal cases arising from the Troubles.

A spokesman for the Law Society says that 30 years of conflict delivered many criminal cases with people being charged over “heinous” crimes.

However, since the ceasefire of 1998, these cases have waned, but that’s not to say that there are fewer criminal cases coming forward. He says there has been a distinct rise in “run-of-the-mill” crimes such as house burglaries, referring to this as one of the negative sides of the “normalisation of society”.

McMillan points out that most of the high-profile murder cases during the Troubles would have been dealt with by specialist law firms.

The Law Society’s network of small firms of solicitors throughout the North would have mainly dealt with, and continue to deal with, general legal issues, from disputes over property to marital breakdown. “It’s very reflective of small practitioners in the South,” she says.

One of the key achievements of McMillan’s term as president, which runs until November, was the Women in Law Business Conference she organised, which took place in Belfast’s new Titanic building last Friday.

“I thought it would be very good to hold something like this so people can get together and discuss the issues affecting women within the profession,” she says.

The line-up was impressive – the Law Society secured the North’s Minister of Enterprise Arlene Foster (also a solicitor), Senator Ivana Bacik, and Scottish lawyer Dame Elish Angiolini.

The keynote speaker was a top criminal defence lawyer from LA, Blair Berk, whose client list is reported to include celebrities such as Mel Gibson.

But was it really necessary to have an event specifically targeted at women? Couldn’t men be offended by such an approach?

Men were welcome to attend, she says. “A lot of women are coming into the profession, but the profession doesn’t seem to be reflecting this at the higher end.

“We’re not seeing as many females becoming partners in larger firms, or moving through the judiciary. We need to understand .”

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