Travel to Killarney, short hop Aer Lingus flights (via its regional company Aer Arann) from Glasgow to Dublin, then Dublin to Kerry, was uneventful if a little turbulent (twin prop planes that bobbed about a bit). But having come further than anyone else to the conference, I heard the horror stories of people driving from Dublin and taking 5½ hours to reach Killarney, though some of them took wrong turnings off the M50 and ended up doing a Bilbo Baggins-esque journey through villages and towns they had no business being near.

The venue was the Hotel Europe, a German-owned resort hotel on the shore of Loch Leane. It was large enough for the conference of 220 attendees. I was the sole delegate from Scotland (apart from John Hussey – see below) and joined Michael Robinson, President of LSNI and Nick Fluck, VP of LSEW, as guests. The hotel looked out on to a scene of loch and mountains that was a dead ringer for Loch Lomond from Cameron House. One feature is an outdoor eternity pool which faces the loch, and it was a slightly bizarre experience to be in warm water being rained and even hailed on in a howling gale.

James McCourt, President, opened proceedings and the first business session commenced. The LSI has a successful and award-winning body called Skillnet which produces specialist training for firms and members, and has a division that gives training for unemployed solicitors and developed a jobseekers’ programme to help them find work. Attracta O’Regan of that body spoke on its work and remembered some now deceased solicitors whom she had worked with.

Thereafter we had sessions on various matters including talks on civil court costs and will/executry issues. On the former there were similar matters arising to what we would have understood, though one interesting aspect was that taxing masters are being encouraged or expected to take account of the general economic downturn (obviously even more extreme in Ireland) in setting rates for costs. Also it was said that as many as 80% of files lodged with the taxing masters were lacking in content and/or explanation or justification of work. Regarding wills and estates, a very substantial and interesting talk was given by solicitor and council member Richard Hammond that was a real tour de force, dealing inter alia with some trust issues and decisions by the court on their tax treatment, changes to the law that closed a gap and threatened to expose poorly drafted or older wills, and, arising out of that, a general plea for will drafting not to be either regarded as a routine or low-skill. Again, the Irish profession has similar challenges to ours.

The craic

I met some interesting people. Readers of my report from the IBA Conference may recall that one attendee at one of our functions was John de Groot from Australia, who as well as being a senior lawyer and academic had been a champion goat racer in Queensland. Well, in Killarney I got into company with James Cahill who is a solicitor from Mayo. As well as being a local general practitioner he is an owner of four donkeys – Daisy, Brownie, Hazel and Nuzzler (when he reeled off the names I thought for a moment that was what his firm is called). James tried to explain the rather Delphic tax advantages of keeping donkeys on your land in Ireland, which I didn’t really follow, and also the legal requirements for donkey passports, which are required principally so that they don’t get unaccountably into the human food chain; but more importantly that they are much better than sheep (both tax-wise and actually) for keeping your grass down, and indeed they protect sheep from the danger of dog attack as dogs are afraid of donkeys.

As well as representing the Law Society of Scotland, I was booked as the speaker at the gala dinner. I gave them my usual spread of Glasgow court stories and knockabout humour, but also expressed a large and heartfelt thanks to LSI, as well as LSNI and LSEW who were represented, for their support, fellowship and friendship over many years and specifically to me as a Law Society of Scotland office bearer.

I was also approached by solicitor John Hussey from near Cork, who told me that there were two Scottish solicitors in the room including me. What he meant was that he was a Scottish qualified solicitor as well as being a Scottish notary public. The story was that he was originally an English solicitor, then qualified and came to work in Ireland, then as a matter of personal interest and ambition he studied and did the necessary paperwork and exams to qualify in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the last of which he did in 2007. He put the icing on that cake when he encountered Michael Clancy at a notarial conference, and who administered the Scottish NP oath at the drop of a hat.

Mingling in the business sessions and social events I was made most welcome and had many fascinating conversations with solicitors in all disciplines. I always take from my encounters with other jurisdictions, especially the home ones, that there is a much that separates us but much more that binds us together, both technically and professionally. 

Justice reforms, Irish style

The following morning was the second business session.

Alan Shatter, the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, was the main speaker. He has been a TD since 1981, having been a very successful family lawyer. Recognised generally as being a highly intelligent and energetic minister, he seems now to be going through the legal system like a dose of salts. Mr Shatter spoke for an hour, listing and explaining numerous innovations and alterations of the current legal and practice landscape. Amongst them:

a new supreme court in two divisions, criminal and civil;

a new family court structure based on the superb Australian system, using backup services of mediators, psychologists, crèches within the court buildings, and specialist judges: all long overdue for reform;

the matter of impeachment of judges being reorganised to protect judges more (hitherto it has been a simply vote in the Dail to impeach a judge);

reform to personal insolvency, arising out of large numbers of victims of the financial crisis, looking at alternatives to formal bankruptcy, and personal insolvency practitioners drawn from solicitors and barristers (a new legal area of practice).

And lots more:

increases in jurisdiction limits for the various courts for PI cases with the idea of lowering the costs for litigants, again in light of the current national economic difficulties;

conveyancing reform – some around the issue of repossession;

Legal Services Regulation Bill – new complaints and disciplinary processes, with a Legal Service Regulation Authority that will include nominees by LSI, and also include lay membership, with appointments to be staggered to ensure continuity (unlike with our SLCC where a whole board demits office at one, to be replaced by a whole new one), protections of independence of new body to prevent interference by government, and alternative procedure for resolution of relevant complaints to avoid the full and costly formal complaints committee process;

Judicial Council Bill – judicial conduct committee including lay membership (drafting continues);

judicial independence – a recent controversy. Irish judiciary was in a recent study or survey, given fourth place in the world in terms of its confidence and robustness in its operation. Recent tensions in the public domain about separation of powers are regrettable but the reality is mutual respect and understanding of the different functions;  

judicial appointments – scope for more transparent and accountable process to promote greater diversity in candidature of judicial appointment. Considers the current arrangements are not as accountable as they ought to be in this day and age. Look at other jurisdictions for example. For example – should academics be entitled to take judicial office? Should judicial studies course be available pre-appointment instead of only post-appointment as now.

In questions and answers one exchange stood out. When the minister was rapporteur to a former health minister in respect of the groundbreaking smoking ban which Ireland was putting in place, he was reported to have said that in law there was/is a strong case for suing the tobacco companies for the healthcare costs caused to the Irish state. Would he now act on his own former advice? He replied that other work has been done on this and the legal advice is that the risks of losing and incurring great cost are too great, but in principle he would have “loved to sue the ass off the tobacco companies”.

I had heard varying opinions from LSI members of the minister’s standing among the profession and his attitude to it (no different from any politician’s standing with a professional body, I suppose), but he was extremely well-informed, had a prodigious memory and was able to talk not just from his script but ad lib and at length – this session overran by half an hour but was ended by a very warm and sustained burst of applause from the conference. I was most impressed.

Panel points

The final stage of the formal business proceedings was a panel session. Panellists each gave a short snappy address on business matters as follows:

Chris Callan: Narrated the history of his merger of two firms that took place on the eve of the financial meltdown in 2007-08, and widened into an assessment of the legal profession/market in the light of Professor Richard Susskind’s thesis on the changes present and to come in the provision of legal services, recommending that solicitors make themselves aware of his writings. Though it is hoped by President McCourt that not all of them will come true!

Catherine Guy: Similar themes. Described herself as the Miss Havisham of Byrne Wallace, given her longevity at her Dublin firm, and gave a thumbnail sketch of its operations. Spoke rapid-fire about business opportunities, pricing pressure, business models and the future of such models, and quality. There is an initiative, Connect Ireland, a project to create jobs in small or large numbers to be brought into the country, especially from the USA. She gave a couple of examples of success. There is a need to innovate and create a way out of the current weakness/lack of capacity in the domestic market. On pricing, there is enormous pressure over recent years to do more for less: it’s a fact of life. We need to examine efficiencies, invest in knowledge, shared services. She sees a coming change in the landscape of legal services. Consolidating/downsizing is inevitable – there is not enough work to keep everyone going. Quality underpins everything we do, and still requires significant investment. Her firm went for Lexcel accreditation (through LSEW… murmur in the room). It was of great help – a great team-building lift in the office and a badge of achievement looking outwards.

Sonia McEntee: A sole practitioner who had done conveyancing and tax. In 2009 this had declined, so she had to reposition to generate more business. She felt she knew about mortgages and regulation, so did work with or concerning the institutions around these areas, e.g. Financial Services Ombudsman, Pension Ombudsman. There is so much work we can develop if we can add on the correct expertise. She thinks the days of general practitioner are over and we need to specialise in one or a small number of disciplines. Networking is at last paying off. Speak at a presentation and someone hearing it will contact you later when a case or issue brings recognition and recollection of your talk and expertise. All work is now word of mouth, and some unexpected referrals. Reputation spreads. She doesn’t think the sole practitioner model is past its sell-by date. Skilling-up of other staff is crucial to share the load and free up fee earner time.

Paul White: Identified similar pressures. Bidding of costs, pricing of work is very challenging. He has 500 salaries to pay every month. Spoke of the importance of attracting and retaining talented people. We have to be aware of stresses and personal issues within members of staff, and need to accommodate these and personal issues generally. He then said that in terms of overseas work as a proportion of GDP, Ireland is now second, replacing Singapore after the number one, Hong Kong. Sixty per cent of his firm comes from overseas corporates. In the other direction, Luxembourg is trying to tempt IP work away from Ireland. Paul’s firm takes 60 Chinese lawyers on secondment to develop this area and related work. It is also engaged in pro bono, volunteering work including education and literacy. Not just for the good that is done but it builds teamwork and ethos among staff: getting the best out of the people who work with you. This then reflects the firm and the profession, especially abroad. He finished with line about the Kerry man with an inferiority complex – he thinks he’s just as good as anyone else.

Never give up

The final item was a departure from law and legislation and practice – a speech by Micheal O’Muircheartaigh (which I have transcribed but can’t pronounce, or reproduce the various acute accents over some of the letters).

Micheal is a senior Gaelic sports commentator, recently retired (now in his 80s) but still involved in broadcasting, and is a writer and motivational speaker. He had just come the night/morning before from a remarkable event – a night-time charity walk called From Darkness To Light. Four thousand in Killarney joined in, of whom most were under 25, and many thousands in other parts of Ireland – all walking to raise funds and awareness to deal with the growing problem of suicide in Ireland. He went into a general storytelling session on some of the events and personalities he had encountered and commentated on over many decades. I followed the narrative, apart from the Gaelic language parts which were naturally numerous, but did not know a lot of the context so could not relevantly join in the laughter and appreciation on the finer points – though Wicklow appear to be the Partick Thistle of the All-Ireland competition. But it was Micheal’s voice that has clearly been the basis of his career. A rich, very slightly gravelly but clear sound, beautifully modulated and using the most vestigial sing-song cadence, a style that you could imagine an ancient bard employing in saga-telling. He held us spellbound. The theme was never giving up, which was something he saw so many examples of in sportsmen, and he related this to the From Darkness To Light ethos and example.

Time out

In the afternoon of the Saturday some of us went on a boat trip across the loch to the Innisfallen Island: The island itself was well worth the slightly tricky voyage. It was the site of an old university that predated even Oxford, and a centre of learning and religion for centuries until the monks moved away and their monastery and church fell into disuse and disrepair. Both buildings remain as ruins, but fascinating as they are solidly built and it is easy to visualise the living days, and there are several interesting archaeological and architectural features to see and study. I left a penny coin with the many others placed on the Celtic cross that sits in the middle of the church, having been recovered from the lake bed by two locals. Our group went walking over part of the 21-acre island, which is unspoilt and covered in old woodland and substantial numbers of deer, who were as curious about us as we were of them.

We were supposed to go on to a second site of ancient primeval oak woodland, but the loch had decided to act up, and the men steering the traditional (open, small, wobbly) boats decided it was not safe to go on, so took us back to the hotel pier. Whilst on the way out we had been tossed about a little, going back meant heading directly into a stiff wind for about half an hour, and it was not long before we were soaked from spray (and rain, which had started up as well). I had by chance positioned myself near the rear of the boat (the stern?), and this turned out to be the main destination for most of the spray coming over the gunwales. Also the plastic sheet that others were able to spread over their laps did not reach me. The pitching of the vessel was alarming, and when we eventually got back we were shaken and stirred. But it was well worth the minor hardship (and naked fear) for the experience of Innisfallen. Later on, once I had dried out and changed clothes, I took a walk into Killarney town, by way of Fossa Way, a woodland walk that goes into the marvellous National Park and ends up at St Mary’s cathedral as you enter the busy market and tourist town.

In summary, this was an excellent conference with very substantial and interesting business sessions and talks. I was treated most generously, and it may be no surprise to readers to be told that Irish hospitality was shown in the largest measure (and measures…). Speaking and mixing with the individual members of the profession and the LSI council was very worthwhile, and I learned a great deal. It is clear that solicitors in Ireland have had and continue to have major challenges arising out of the national financial meltdown, and the legal profession, as are other professions and businesses in the country, is having to find new ways to work and innovate out of trouble. I recognise a positive spirit and willingness to contribute and develop which does the profession great credit. Having over my office-bearing period of the last couple of years got to know its leaders, people like past President Donald Binchy, current President Jimmy McCourt and director general Ken Murphy, I know they are in good hands. And we in Scotland are lucky to have such good friends and neighbours.