Cancer taught Sara Phelan SC, the new Chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, the importance of seizing opportunities.
He had only just joined the Council, the governing body of most lawyers, in 2019 when a routine BreastCheck appointment led to the discovery of two lumps.
The mother-of-one had a lumpectomy and spent the first few weeks of the pandemic driving from her home in Kilkenny to Mater Hospital for radiation therapy.
The 56-year-old admits that before she beat cancer, the thought of running for election to lead the 2,100-strong Bar Association never crossed her mind. It’s an arduous role that puts her at the forefront of the many problems the profession faces.
But she approaches the challenge with a sense of calm, similar to how she’s dealt with her diagnosis. “I’m not one to worry. That was one thing I taught myself when I got into the Law Library because life as a lawyer is very unpredictable,” she said Irish Independent.
“I decided that I wouldn’t worry about things I had no control over. I had complete trust in the doctors. I just let her carry on.
“Everyone deals with the diagnosis of a serious illness in their own way. That was my way. I just put my head down and kept going.”
When asked if her experience played a role in her decision to run for election, she said, “I think it probably has. You may be reevaluating where you are and where you are going. It teaches you to just grab opportunities when they present themselves.”
That she is so open about her battle with cancer may come as a surprise to many in a profession where practitioners are self-employed and tend not to be open about health issues as it could impact their source of work.
“It wasn’t a secret. I have been quite open with my colleagues and my supervising attorneys. I felt that if someone was in a similar position, if someone was in a similar position, I was there by my openness,” she said.
Ms. Phelan is only the third woman to be elected Chair of the Bar Council, following in the footsteps of her immediate predecessor, Maura McNally SC and the late Ms. Justice Mella Carroll.
While Ms McNally’s tenure has been dominated by the pandemic and working with the court service and judiciary to keep the court system running, Ms Phelan’s “input tray” is different, but no less busy.
A recent strategic review of the legal profession conducted by EY concluded that Ireland has too many lawyers for its population, there is an unbalanced workload, many members claim to be suffering financially and the public feels that the profession is ‘out of range”.
I went into it blindly for someone who had no intention of becoming a lawyer
Attrition was also highlighted as a problem, as was a perceived lack of diversity.
Ms Phelan doesn’t think lawyers are “out of touch”.
“We’re literally dealing with everyday problems that people have,” she said.
“I think we feel really privileged that we can really make a difference in people’s lives through our work.”
It is also well positioned when it comes to diversity.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, she had no family ties to the law.
Her father was a farmer and her mother a teacher. In fact, she first trained as a pharmacist and worked as such for eight years. A friend suggested that she train at King’s Inns as, even if she never practiced law, she would benefit from the debating and analytical skills taught there.
“I went in blindly for someone who had no intention of becoming a lawyer,” Ms. Phelan said. She joined the South Eastern Circuit and found a niche in family law almost immediately after the passage of the Divorce Act.
Criminal defense was and remains a cornerstone.
While “going to the circuit” outside Dublin was “what it takes” for her, she is aware that it can be difficult for newcomers to make a living while trying to establish themselves, while women struggle to advance to the higher ranks.
Just over 37 percent of the Bar Association are women and a fifth of the Senior Counsel is female following yesterday’s calls to the Internal Bar Association.
“This is really good news as it is the first time we have managed to get 20 percent female senior counsel. But there is still more to do. It would be nice if there were 50 pieces,” she said.
Until recently, she ran a mentoring program that allowed women lawyers to have a one-to-one relationship with an experienced colleague.
“Some of these can be challenging mindsets. It can be perceived barriers versus actual barriers,” she said.
A total of 126 women have benefited from the program and it is ongoing.
Further efforts to improve diversity will come in the form of an expanded online transition year program in secondary schools aimed at reaching children without legal ties and plans to promote advocacy in universities.
Another important issue is the reversal of the cuts in penal assistance fees made during the 2008-2011 financial crisis. The low salary level compared to civil law has contributed to two-thirds of criminal lawyers leaving within six years.
Ms Phelan said if this continues the Trial Chamber will not have the expertise to follow trials.
“It’s a human rights issue. If you do not have the expertise to prosecute these cases, crime victims will not be justified.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/overcoming-cancer-teaches-you-to-grab-opportunities-when-they-come-new-chair-of-the-council-of-the-bar-of-ireland-42044059.html ‘Beating cancer teaches you to seize opportunities when they come’ – new Chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland