Dedication's what you need

Fiona Woolf

Mention electricity and Fiona Woolf's eyes light up. The woman rumoured to be McKenna & Co's top fee-earner reels off a list of projects in parts of the world which would test the mettle of the most avid cartographer. When she agreed to get married four years ago, her husband thought he was marrying a solicitor with a domestic practice. He is now undergoing replacement therapy on the golf course as Woolf organises the electricity supplies of Orissa. Even their wedding played second fiddle to the National Grid. "We put it off until the vesting of the National Grid Company in its new form," Woolf says.

Another topic close to her heart is the Law Society. As a long-time council member and soon-to-retire head of the Law Society's International Committee, she supports Henry Hodge in the current presidential elections. But, she had the dubious honour of being supported recently by leading dissident Martin Mears as a future presidential candidate.

Like Mears, Woolf accepts that the Law Society needs a shake-up. "Some of us in council are pressing for a radical change. The profession hasn't seen this going on," she says. "There needs to be a radical rethink in the way that the Law Society communicates with members and involves them in policy-making.

"There is a world out there that the Law Society at council and staff level is not in touch with. Some council members regard it as a gentleman's club," she says, adding, "hopefully, they are in the minority".

Woolf used to take members from the society into her firm to bring them into contact with the real world. "There is a certain need for the staff of the Law Society to have more contact with a day-to-day basis," she believes, adding she was in charge of a communications review task-force.

As head of the International Committee for the past four years, Woolf found herself embroiled in a number of major controversies. Negotiations with the Paris and Brussels Bars on rights of establishment took up much of her time as well as political skills.

"The Paris Bar in the past two years was most difficult to deal with. They went back on the agreement we had reached with them in Lisbon which was a compromise," she says.

Nor is she complimentary about the CCBE, which spent 17 years on a draft directive on rights of establishment which later came untangled when the directive went before the European Commission.

The CCBE presidency was trying to reach a compromise on establishment at the moment, she says, adding that the credibility of the organisation was now at stake.

But, in general the CCBE "achieved a transformation from an organisation not sure what its role in life was, one which had no particular mission or business plan and one whose internal working methods left a lot to be desired".

Following pressure from the UK, the CCBE has now shaped up with a well-organised Brussels office and an understanding that it needed to "focus on something concrete".

The GATT negotiations on legal services is one of her greatest disappointments. "The main achievement was to get legal services into GATT," she says, adding that she was disappointed she "didn't achieve a better base line in the negotiations, particularly with the Japanese and the Americans".

Articled to the then Taylor Garrett, Woolf joined McKenna & Co after the "five-year itch". "I worked very closely with one partner and felt I was always going to be his assistant no matter how old I was," she says. The partner, Tom Wodburn, taught her how to be a good lawyer intertwined with a strong commercial bent.

From the start, it was clear that McKenna's had a freer environment, she says. "I said 'What work will you have me do'. They asked: 'What would you like to do?'"

She became a partner in 1981 and went to Singapore for a short period. She ran the Bahrain office for three years and "was greatly in demand for balancing dinner parties as I was the only woman in Bahrain in my 30s who could be relied on not to talk about babies".

Her return in 1985 saw her assisting the negotiating of the concession agreement for the Channel Tunnel. After this, the Northern Ireland Electricity privatisation provided her with her main experience in power and transmission which in effect led to her appointment by the National Grid to write around 700 agreements for all connected to the grid, both directly and indirectly.

This provided the background to a fast expanding energy practice which is now predominantly based in developing countries such as India. "In developing countries, demand for electricity completely outstrips supply," she says.

Woolf has been running the Orissa project since last August but took over as project director in February, a "triumph of legal skills over engineering skills in the consortium," involved in the project.

Mary Heaney