Interview with Christine O’Donovan
Chair of Mason Hayes & Curran LLP
Career Journey & Lessons Learned
” Take your time to learn your skills, dream big and be ambitious. A career in law is a marathon and not a sprint. “
Where does the story start? Could you please tell us about your background?
My legal story begins when I entered University College Cork to study law. I remember one of the professors meeting me with a group of students in the first few weeks and said ‘well done, you have done the hard part’. He went on to say that it didn’t matter how many points you got in the Leaving Certificate, you all start now on equal footing and it’s hard to fail, so don’t let it happen!
These words were a great comfort to me and helped to ease my anxiety about starting university and a path to a career in law as I don’t have a family background or any connections in the legal profession. I often repeat those wise words to those starting out in third level. When you get your place on your chosen course, know that you deserve to be there and don’t be nervous or anxious. Engage and participate, it’s up to you to enjoy it and make the most of the experience.
Why did you become a lawyer?
As a teenager, I had a notion that a career as a ‘lawyer’ would be exciting and challenging. I enjoyed studying history and learning about the many lawyers who transformed the political and legal landscape in Ireland from Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet in the 18th Century; Daniel O’Connell in the 19th Century to Padraig Pearse in the 20th century. It opened my eyes to the lawyers who became voices for change and reform. Another notable legal figure during my formative years was Mary Robinson, an ardent campaigner for women’s rights who became the first woman President of Ireland and continues to advocate for social and climate justice.
I wanted a career that would give me independence and a gateway into business. My career to date has been very varied. I started in a small firm, then moved to a very exciting in-house role in aviation which gave me great exposure to international lawyers and work practices and now I serve as Chair of one of the largest firms in Ireland in Mason Hayes & Curran LLP. Being a lawyer has proven to be a lifelong learning experience and is exciting and challenging on many many levels.
Can you tell us about the work you do?
My chosen field is financial services primarily aviation and international asset finance. This sector is really hurting right now. My work involves helping corporate and institutional clients from around the world, who carry on business in Ireland and who champion Ireland as a location for international aircraft leasing and financing. My role as a lawyer and project manager is to assist clients to achieve their commercial objectives whether that is in financing transactions, restructurings, investments or trading strategies. The aviation community in Ireland is relatively small, tight knit and very resilient. I am reminded of The Eagles song ‘Hotel California’ which aptly describes life in aviation: you can ‘check out’ but can’t ever leave! The aviation community draws you in and supports and sustains its members.
You are the Chair of Mason Hayes & Curran LLP in Dublin, what have you learned about people from leading an organisation?
I took on the role of Chair in Mason Hayes & Curran LLP in mid-March 2020 just as the global pandemic was sweeping across the world. Since 12 March, the speed of change has been dramatic. I have been so impressed and inspired by my colleagues ability to react, adapt to the new pace, place and ways of working and to the adherence to the public health restrictions. It has been very important for us as a firm to maintain our sense of connection and community with our clients and everyone who works in the firm. My impression is that we have excelled at this not thorough any innovative or original measures but by simple, effective and timely communication.
If your client only remembers one thing after working with you, what do you want it to be?
That I ‘had their back’ and was solution orientated when obstacles arose on the path. And, when it was all over, I was someone they would happily share a glass of wine and good conversation.
If you weren’t a lawyer what might you be doing now?
In truth I don’t think I would be any good in any other profession. However, if someone had given me one wish as a teenager I would like to have explored the possibility of being an artist. I am not for one moment saying that I have the talent to support such an aspiration. I currently serve on the Board of NCAD and observe the wonderful work of the college, the dedication of its Director and academic staff and the creativity, talent and ingenuity of students across all artistic disciplines.
Mason Hayes & Curran LLP has a wonderful and extensive contemporary art collection. The Art Committee with support from the firm, work to support emerging artists living and working in Ireland. We are very pleased to continue our corporate sponsorship of the RDS Visual Art Awards 2020 through the award of a residency at Ireland’s Cultural Institute in Paris. The RDS Visual Art Award winners will take announced in the late Autumn 2020 and due to COVID 19 will be taking place on-line. It will be very exciting to see and hear from the award winning graduates later this year.
Can you tell us what you have learned from being a mentor / sponsor?
In my view mentoring and sponsorship are the modern equivalent of a ‘business alliance’. This can take the form of a single individual mentor, or it can take the form of community sponsorship. I have benefitted from informal mentorship during my career by senior lawyers who saw my potential even when I didn’t. I like to think I benefitted from the sponsorship and support from the aviation community in Ireland, particularly former colleagues from GPA and GECAS. So many of my former colleagues have helped me enormously throughout my career and for this I am very grateful.
I have supported the Law & Women Mentoring Programme which is a wonderful initiative of both professional legal bodies: Law Society of Ireland and the Bar of Ireland. I think that successful mentor programmes are those which are voluntary and involve thoughtful match-making to ensure successful business alliances. Such programs within companies have a difficult task to achieve their objectives to ensure all participants are invested in the program, deliver on expectations and avoid becoming too formulaic and then not serve its constituents.
What advice would you give a graduate starting out in a career in law?
Take your time to learn your skills, dream big and be ambitious. A career in law is a marathon and not a sprint. It is now very rare for someone to work their entire life in one firm. I would encourage young lawyers to take the opportunities as they present themselves, to work in-house, work overseas, and to not to be afraid of making a change or taking on a challenge. You will learn from each experience and meet lots of interesting people along the way.
What is the best piece of life advice you ever got ?
Earn your own living and learn to drive. Earning a living can take the form of entrepreneurship or employment. It will help to build confidence and independence and the simple act of driving will allow you to go where your heart desires.
What is the best piece of business advice you ever got?
‘It’s a long road that has no turning’. In business, it is rare that you have a single isolated encounter with a person or business enterprise and during the course of a career you may meet again and the circumstances of each engagement are different. This advice has served me and my clients very well, it has assisted with the pace of transactions and helped foster deeper relationships amongst all participants.
Tell me something you have learned about the business world?
The business world is tough, exciting and demanding. It is surprising to me that in 2020 women haven’t achieved equal representation and the business world continues to be dominated by men. There are so many talented women in our community, in business and the professions and women make up 50% of the working population.
When I qualified as a solicitor, I believed that the future would be equal opportunity, equal access and equal representation for men and women and while progress is being made I continue to advocate for gender balance. I have to commend the legal profession as the stand-out example of gender representation in professional services firms compared to other organisations. In Mason Hayes & Curran LLP our partnership is currently 37% female. The onus is on all business people to maintain a high level of visible representation and to foster and campaign for continuous engagement on the issue of diversity. I continue to advocate for engagement on all aspects of diversity and inclusion in our business and in the aviation sector.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to travel. As my practice area is Aviation it won’t come as a surprise that I have travelled extensively for work and for leisure. When at home in Dublin, in my spare time I try to avoid screen-time. During the COVID Summer, I ventured back into the ocean and started sea swimming, which I haven’t done in Ireland in a very long time. My wetsuit purchased in Target, in Brisbane Australia circa. 2000 sadly had to be retired and I purchased an upgrade. So far I have resisted buying a ‘dry-robe’ mainly as I see them as something for talented and dedicated triathletes, however maybe I will reconsider this decision closer to Christmas.
Favourite Place You Have been to / Favourite Holiday?
Favourite place in Ireland is West Cork. Summer 2020 I rediscovered some of my childhood holiday destinations. My parents favoured their local counties and tended not to venture very far with a car packed with children and full weather wardrobe. There are so many magnificent sights in West Cork and Kerry to be enjoyed, from sitting over looking Glandore harbour watching the sailing school flotilla heading out into the bay, walking around Lough Hyne’s Knockomagh Wood in spooky fog and mist, swimming at Inchidoney Beach, driving the Beara Pennisula and dining in Cork’s gourmet capital in Kinsale.
Is there anywhere on your travel bucket list?
I thoroughly enjoy swapping travel stories with friends and family and am excitedly looking forward to when we can all safely travel internationally. Iceland is on my bucket list as it has many attractions regardless of the season. A summer visit, with more daylight hours, allows time to enjoy incredible natural wonders, whereas a Winter visit, with frost dusted waterfalls and possible sighting of the northern lights has a magical appeal. One day soon I hope to go there.