Alice Whittaker, Partner, Head of Environment and Climate Group, Philip Lee Solicitors
How long have you been working for your current company?
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I obtained a degree in law from University College Dublin in 1998. After some time out travelling and working abroad, I commenced a traineeship with a large commercial firm in Dublin in February 1999 and qualified as a solicitor in 2001. On qualification I split my time between general commercial litigation and environmental and planning law. I enjoyed my work, but ultimately I found the culture of such a large commercial firm oppressive. I decided that I needed to find a working environment that would allow me to be an individual and creative in my approach, but would also challenge me intellectually and professionally. I joined Philip Lee in April 2004 and have never looked back.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
I was very proud when I was promoted as partner in 2007, at a relatively young age. There have been a number of highlights in my professional career with successful cases and projects which were important to me and to the firm. Of course, having my kids has also been a big deal too.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
We all work very hard for our clients and for the firm, and as our clients increasingly face budgetary constraints there is a need to do more for less. We have been very successful in continuing to grow and expand the firm’s client base throughout the current recession, but a significant challenge is ensuring that we bring our talented junior and senior lawyers along with us and keep them engaged, motivated and challenged.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
Finding a work-life balance is challenging for every lawyer, particularly those in private practice. I have actually found it easier to maintain a work-life balance since I had my children, as they provide the motivation to work efficiently and to organise myself in order to get home to them at a reasonable hour. Like many lawyers, however, I do work late in to the evenings at home quite often, and rely heavily on the IT and communications systems provided by the firm to facilitate more flexible working hours and mobility.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
When I joined Philip Lee in 2004, the firm comprised just four partners and a number of talented associates. The scale and complexity of the work that they were undertaking was astonishing. They were involved in the most exciting, significant and challenging projects in the State. These entirely novel, complex multi-million euro infrastructure and technology projects were being delivered by a tightly knit team of experts working closely and in partnership with their clients. The intellect, creativity, expertise and strength of personality of the partners I worked with then and continue to work with today impress and inspire me every day. I believe I work with the very best of lawyers in Ireland, and their generosity and support continues to motivate me in my career.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
The culture of a law firm is extremely important. In my view, a firm with an international perspective and a culture which thrives on expertise, innovation and integrity helps to attract lawyers with those qualities and values from a wide range of backgrounds.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
In Philip Lee I have never felt at any disadvantage because I am a woman. It just isn’t an issue.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
There are considerably more women than men qualifying as solicitors now in Ireland. While this may lead to perceived barriers to promotion disappearing in commercial law firms, the reality at present appears to be that partnerships are not yet equal. Most managing partners are men, with a few notable exceptions, but one would expect this to change in the near future.
Technology and communications improvements have made it a lot easier to work effectively from home and while on the move, which creates a far more flexible working environment which is conducive to family life, something which I think is of benefit to both men and women in this profession.