No place like home

Myra Garrett is quite an enigma. A self-declared “unambitious lawyer”, she has without any apparent design found herself at the forefront of William Fry, one of Dublin's big five law firms.

Garrett read law at University College Dublin and, like many other lawyers, fell into her profession. By her own admission, she studied law because she was not quite sure what to do for a career. But the legal market she graduated into in 1984 is a very different proposition to the one we all know today.

At that time, apprenticeships were still very difficult to come by. The economic boom that the country would experience in the mid-1990s was then the stuff of economists' and lawyers' dreams. Garrett was advised to apply to William Fry, then a shadow of its present self, and has remained there ever since.

Garrett's childhood ambition of becoming a florist is now a distant memory, consigned to history. She enthuses over her fallback career: “I love doing deals and M&A-style work. I love the buzz of negotiating and the tactics involved with the deals.” Her mother, then, was right to dissuade her from a career of snipping roses and arranging bouquets; but does Garrett have any regrets about her chosen path?

“The only slight regret I might have is that I didn't, unlike many of my contemporaries, go abroad for a year or two,” she says. “It's not something that disturbs me particularly though – I've always been a homebird and I love Dublin.”

Such affinity with her home town could not even be broken by the comparatively mega-salaries on offer in London. In the mid-1980s, newly-qualifieds in London would take home on average almost £20,000, while their counterparts, Garrett among them, could command an annual salary of only £10,000 even in the largest Irish firms.

There were, though, professional advantages in staying at home. “Any experience you get in London stands you in good stead, but you do build up contacts if you stay in Ireland. People get to know you in Dublin – it's a small market,” she says.

As a young lawyer with William Fry, Garrett once again happened upon the work that would help develop her formidable reputation in the Irish legal market – IT. “One of my early breaks was getting involved with small technology companies that were beginning to look for outside investment. I was lucky to get them at a time when the economy was based around old-style companies such as Smurfits; it meant that younger lawyers like me got the opportunity to work with these new entities and build up relationships with them.”

Iona Technologies is a case in point. Iona is one of Ireland's most successful indigenous technology companies, and Garrett has been on board from the beginning. It was one of many companies to spring from the local universities, and Garrett remembers fondly her first visits to the dim offices of these campus companies along Dublin's Pearse Street.

She says: “It was great to be working with people around my own age, groups based on pure ideas and with a road map and clear plan of where they were going. They taught me a lot. It was just at the time that the technology boom was starting – unknown to many – that William Fry became involved with quite a few. They weren't paying the same fees as the older, established companies, but we were impressed by the calibre of the people involved.”

The whole thing has now come full circle, with new technology companies suffering more than most at the hands of a slowdown in the US economy, which could have major ramifications for Garrett's practice.

“It hasn't impacted hugely yet,” she says. “I deal almost exclusively with Irish indigenous companies, not with multinationals, and we're always one or two years behind the US. There's been an upward incline since I started practising, but the indicators out there are definitely for a slowdown. So far, there's been no definite decline, but there's been a tightening up in the market.”

Garrett is just one of a whole generation of lawyers who are used to a booming economy. Those with longer memories recall more difficult times, but this is a new breed of lawyer in many ways. Garrett, now in her mid-30s, was part of the first wave of female lawyers to make their way as easily and successfully as their male counterparts in the Irish legal market. She admits that there are very few older female lawyers in the Dublin firms, the majority of them being within her own age group. But she is adamant that her gender has never been a problem. “I've experienced no difficulty in being a woman [in the profession]; if anything, it's made things slightly easier. We've been in an economic boom, and at times like this, the evaluation of every man or woman comes down to performance and to merit.”

She does, however, recognise that the managing partners of all the Dublin firms have always been men, and that as it stands, a higher proportion of partners in all the firms are male. But she believes this is a situation that has started to turn around and is something that will continue to change through necessity.

But Garrett remains coy at the prospect of ever taking the reins at William Fry herself. Perhaps it fails to fit in with her self-image of just getting on with the job in hand and not spending too much time pondering on where her career is heading.

But perhaps she will fall into the managing partner role too, as several commentators believe she will. For now Garrett seems content to head the firm's technology unit. She says: “I have a fairly biggish team working with me. I'm a hands-on person and I very much like to be kept in touch with how things are going, how they're getting on and whether they're coping or having difficulties. But I do a lot of casework myself and hope to continue doing that.”

She may not have the option of surrendering her casework anyway. Garrett and her team are facing the same problems as most legal markets, including Ireland as a whole – recruiting. Garrett may be a homebird herself, but attracting others to life in Dublin, and to William Fry in particular, is an altogether different task. She says: “It's difficult to get technology people in Dublin. Obviously, you do get lawyers back from the UK, but not a huge flow, and there's a lot of competition for them.” n