Alternative Careers in Law

On 18/11/14 TCD FLAC hosted an ‘Alternative Careers in Law’ event, in which numerous speakers from varied career backgrounds, spoke to a packed out global room in the Hamilton about their journeys and career decisions. The key message which was expounded throughout the evening and mentioned by our Chair Gary Hansell in his introduction, was that even within law, our career trajectory is not set in stone.

The first to speak was Senator, Professor and Fellow Ivana Bacik, who spoke of the difficulty in planning a career in law and politics, emphasising that “sometimes things just organically happen.” She talked of the benefits of Chambers in the UK, which provides a framework for work and gives support we don’t have here, whilst being difficult to combine with other work, also noting how it is relatively easy to transfer between jurisdictions as she did. She recommended taking a masters qualification as it is essential for the Irish bar and opens up the option of part time teaching and full time academia.

Secondly, Professor David Kenny addressed the audience about the unpredictability of getting a job in academia as well as the key benefit of having a flexible schedule around teaching commitments. He told us that the path to getting a job in academia roughly involves six steps:

Step 1. Do well in college

Step 2. Do a masters

Step 3. Do a PhD in some topic of law (he described this step as “three years of misery; both satisfying and frustrating”)

Step 4. Start to publish, ideally throughout your PhD

Step 5. Get some teaching experience

Step 6. Hopefully get a teaching position that is open. This is dependent on what universities are hiring and if your profile matches them.

Next, Zse Varga, who works in volunteer management with FLAC, talked about the practical benefits of studying business or management courses and how the skills gained in this kind of training enable you to “make things work.” She also provided with us with information on the history and current workings of FLAC.

Eithne Lynch, who joined us from the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), was the next to speak. Although she found working with one of the large Dublin law firms a valuable experience, she realised it wasn’t for her. She spoke of her ongoing involvement as a volunteer in Rule of Law projects in Africa. As a legal officer in PILA, part of her job is to look for strategic opportunities to address lacunas in the law and make change – this is achieved, in part, through strategic litigation which enables PILA to make a real impact.

Next, Edel Quinn, legal and policy officer for the Children’s Rights Alliance spoke to the crowd. She always saw the law as a means of change. She took the New York bar as she felt this was the best international qualification available and got involved working in NGOs. She stressed that if you are in a well run and well financed NGO which is professionally organised “you can have an impact.” In her everyday work, Edel identifies areas of non-compliance with international human rights and lobbies around these issues. Her focus in her work with the Children’s Rights Alliance is the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. She concluded her talk by telling the audience that they don’t have to go down a route they are uncomfortable with, as she has a rewarding career that she doesn’t consider alternative.

Gareth Noble, partner in KOD Lyons, then spoke about his expansion from criminal defence work into human rights law. Through a merger with another firm, KOD Lyons “took seriously a gap in the market for a proper human rights firm in Ireland”, recognising they “could and should use the law to effect social change.” He spoke of the firm’s assistance NGO sector as being greatly valued as they can provide real expertise. He also spoke of the firms utilisation of the media of Facebook, and how the firm has used it to reach a wider client-base and help a greater number of people.

Brian Collins, a solicitor at the Irish Refugee Council and Law Centre, talked about his journey from being an intern in the IRC to becoming a legal officer and recently qualifying as a solicitor. He described working in an NGO, noting that although it’s all hands on deck all the time and not always 9-5 it’s very rewarding, and commented that “the world is coming to your desk”. In this line of work he said early legal advice is key, as well as strategic litigation. He recommended interning to make connections and become better-known.

The eighth speaker was Laura Butler, who regaled us with the story of how she took the initiative of putting herself forward for a job in a criminal legal aid firm. She heard they were looking for someone to help but didn’t have time to do interviews, so she approached the employer, asked for work and organised her contract on a beer mat! The moral of this story, she told us, was to “keep your ear to the ground.” In talking of her transition to education and later joining the NGO world, she noted that the one thing a law degree gives you is transferability. She spoke about making choices that balance your career and other things in life. She ended by saying: “I am not hugely wealthy, but I am hugely fulfilled from a career perspective.”

Our final speaker was Maria Mullan, a solicitor from the Irish human rights and equality commission, a brand new independent body whose purpose is to protect and promote human rights and equality throughout society. As a legal officer her focus is promoting these aims through legal means, by involvement with proceedings involving human or equality rights. She told the audience that she feels “privileged to be able to use her qualifications to effect change” for individuals who ask for help and the wider society in general. She also noted that there is always time to try something else; you will in time get to experience a challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, career.

The speakers portrayed a real sense that they were in their chosen careers, not because it was what they felt compelled to do but because it involved the kind of work they enjoyed or naturally felt drawn to. A recurring theme was the feeling of job satisfaction and fulfilment. Overall, the evening provided the audience with a range of career choices to consider, outside the normal scope of career choices typically presented to law students, in which a law degree would be equally valued.

Aisling Murray