The Law Society’s new president, Kevin O’Higgins, talks to Mark McDermott about politics, family history, defending the solicitors’ profession, and his plans for his year in office.
It will come as no surprise to those who know him that Kevin O’Higgins is a party animal – both socially and, more specifically, in his dedication to his beloved Fine Gael. During the speech to Council marking his presidential inauguration, Kevin referred to the adage of outgoing president John P Shaw, who often stated that he “didn’t do politics”
“Well, it will come as no surprise to most here that I do!” Kevin said, only half in jest. “In truth, I have been involved professionally and actively in that space for 20 plus years and have considerable respect for most politicians, who are decent, honourable, and hardworking people.” Notwithstanding his political background, he is adamant that he will carry out his function as president in an agnostic fashion.
Kevin is a self-avowed and extremely proud sole practitioner with Leinster rugby blood flowing through his veins. He boasts of being the first sole practitioner president of modern times.
So where did it all start for the South Dublin man whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather went by the moniker Thomas F O’Higgins? The first question has to be why he himself was not christened ‘Thomas F’?
“The simple reason is because I was beaten to it by my eldest brother!” Coming fifth in a family of seven children, he ended up being called after his uncle Kevin. “My father was his godson, I think.”
He had a lot to live up to, given the O’Higgins’ legal and political heritage. Kevin’s father Tom was a stalwart in Fine Gael, a barrister and judge who subsequently became Chief Justice and a judge of the European Court in Luxembourg – as well as being a candidate in the 1966 and 1973 presidential elections.
Surely, coming from such a strong political background suggested that Kevin might carve out a career in politics for himself? “I was never really drawn to it, although I was always political and politically active. But I never really felt that I could go out there and do what politicians do, and I was never pushed into it. “In my adult life, I might have been more strongly disposed towards it – in my middle years, let’s say – because an awful lot of what I do now is political.” He admits that getting involved initially with the Dublin Solicitors’ Bar Association, and then on Council with the Law Society, resonated with his political DNA.
“That was quite fulfilling. A lot of my legal work, of course, has become political and it has certainly been said to me by my political peers that I have the requisite skills.” As the son of a prominent politician, did he ever resent politics for effectively kidnapping his father from ‘normal’ family life. “No! I was very proud, you know. Quite honestly, it was nice to be able to go into the schoolyard the day after a political debate and somebody would say: ‘Oh, I saw your dad on Today Tonight’.
We certainly enjoyed his campaigns, particularly the presidential campaigns, which were great fun.” Surely he doesn’t have many memories of the 1966 campaign, when he would have been just nine? “Oh, I remember it very well! It was a remarkable campaign. It was the first political campaign in Ireland that had American-style razzmatazz!”
His dad went head-to-head with Eamonn de Valera, and would have been regarded as a rank outsider. It was the 50th anniversary of 1916. “Notwithstanding the fact that my godfather, his best friend, ran RTÉ – Kevin McCourt – the station took a position that they would not afford him any access to television because Dev wasn’t campaigning. Dev thought it would be unbecoming for the incumbent president to carry on a campaign.
“I think it was to thwart any TV coverage for his opponent, but yet, every Sunday, Dev was in every part of Ireland putting down wreaths and dominating the TV news. So my father’s campaign was really confined to the press.” Tom did remarkably well, losing the election by only 9,000 votes. “It was a remarkable result,” reminisces Kevin.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man
Seven years later, Tom decided to run again – against Erskine Childers.
“This time, the tables had turned,” says Kevin. “My dad was probably the favourite. He was a little bit unlucky because, shortly after he had declared as a presidential candidate in January, Jack Lynch called a snap general election the following month. Dad decided to stick with his decision and so didn’t contest his seat. And, of course, the government changed.”
It seemed to augur well for a non-Fianna Fáil candidate in the presidential election? “Yes, but Fianna Fáil chose well. It was 1973 and the North was bubbling up. There was a lot of trouble up there and this was a chance for the fair-minded Southerners to effectively declare that we were not bigoted and quite happy to elect a Protestant Englishman!” Kevin was 16 at the time, at school in Clongowes Wood, Co Kildare, like his father before him.
“That same year, my father was president of the Clongowes Union, effectively a past-pupils’ group. I remember him as the presidential candidate coming down on Union Day – the big day in the school, in late May. The election was the following week. There was a lot of media interest.”
That particular excitement over, two years later, Kevin finished his Leaving Certificate. Was his career path always going to be in the law?
“You’ll be amused to hear this, but I thought my bent was in journalism! I would have been contemplating that and making suggestions in that regard, but the Jesuits took me aside and said ‘No, no, no! You’re not going to make a living out of that!’” “So I decided to do the solicitor’s course. I think life as a solicitor had more appeal to me than becoming a barrister, because it was much broader and seemed to offer business acumen, management acumen, legal research and legal problem-solving. It was a decision that I came to in fifth or sixth year, and it was probably influenced to a degree that around 11 of my year went into law, mainly as solicitors.”
Every president tends to put their stamp on their presidential year. What are Kevin’s plans?
“I’ll play to my strengths. I’m a good judge of people and a good judge of reflecting the colleagues’ concerns. Those concerns continue to be about survival. I’m lucky to be president now, when there is a great opportunity for the Law Society’s relationship with its members to change. I think that the Legal Services Regulation Bill, when enacted, will give the Law Society the opportunity to recast its relationship with its members.
” What are his thoughts on the Legal Services Regulation Bill?
“Apart from the positive benefits I’ve just mentioned, I have concerns about whether the changes to the regulation of the profession will cost us more. We will have to be ever vigilant about that. But the work that has been done by the Society over the last three years in dissecting the legislation and suggesting ways on how it could be improved, most of those ideas have been taken on board.
“That said, we would still have concerns about matters relating to privilege, specifically sections 15 to 17. There’s also a lack of clarity in relation to certain other areas, particularly about limited liability partnerships.
“From the Law Society’s point of view, of course, we continue to have concerns that the issue of the transfer of regulatory staff hasn’t been resolved yet.
“My own view is that the sooner the legislation is passed the better – it’s been three years now, and it will probably be another six months before it is enacted. It’s time to get on with it, because it’s very difficult to plan otherwise.”
How does he respond to media comments that the Law Society has tried to meddle with the new legislation by suggesting that certain changes be made in order to suit its members rather than the general public?
“I think it’s very surprising that the Law Society should be criticised by the media for taking a significant interest in legislation that is clearly going to affect its members. You know, there probably won’t be another Legal Services Regulation Act for a generation. The last major legislation was 60 years ago, so this legislation is going to see most of our careers out. Of course the Law Society is entitled to, and must take, a huge interest in it. It’s obvious that we’re going to be interested in how this legislation is going to affect us, but I also believe that we have ably represented the public-interest concerns as well.
“One key feature of the legislation is that the client of a solicitor will be fully aware of what litigation will cost, or what legal services will cost him or her. That’s not always the way at present. We welcome these changes and we agree that such matters should become much more transparent, in order that it will be in the consumer’s interest as well.”
What are the top three issues for his presidential year?
“I’d like to try to address the isolation that many sole practitioners encounter. We’ve often heard that sole practitioners are an endangered species. I don’t happen to agree with that, and I remind colleagues that 10% of all practices in Britain – which is a much more urbanised country than we are – are run by sole practitioners.
“I believe that the private client will always prefer to deal with a smaller legal practice as opposed to a larger concern. So I see a future for the sole practitioner. The drawbacks will continue, of course, by which I mean the feeling of isolation, of not having a peer group to discuss issues with. That’s why I am very happy that the Law Society has been able to support the Sole Practitioners’ Network, which has recently been established by Sonia McEntee, Neil Butler and others. This is going to be a great help for sole practitioners.
“In relation to other matters, it would be great to see Dublin – the Dublin legal community – attract more international work than perhaps it has in the past. If there’s anything that I could do in my role as president of the Law Society to encourage that, I’d be happy to make myself available. Specifically, we need to be competing for more arbitration and mediation work, which, currently, tends to go to London.”
What are his opinions on the recent controversies around court closure and the potential bugging of solicitor/client conversations in Garda stations?
“I would have concerns as to the social effect of court closures, particularly in rural Ireland. To take the Dublin situation as an example, it was absolutely bizarre – and the phrase used by the Society was that it was ‘bonkers’ – to even contemplate that you could possibly run a justice system in the capital city and its environs by shutting four significant court venues. Thankfully, common sense has prevailed in relation to that madcap idea.
“I’d be very conscious of the social effect it must have when local garda stations and local courthouses close, while also recognising that, sometimes, courts simply are not viable and some level of rationalisation might be needed.
“On the reported tapping of phones in garda stations, I’d be aghast if there had been a systematic attempt, for prosecution purposes, to tape conversations. My own feeling is it these were more likely to be practices that grew up institutionally many years ago and which were never eradicated, or the significance of what they were doing wasn’t really thought through. We’ll have to wait, however, for the findings of the Fennelly Commission report before we know for sure.”
There have been rumours about a judicial appointment in the offing for Kevin. Has he heard anything?
“I’m well used to that sort of speculation. I hear those rumours in much the same way as those which suggested that I might become a politician. Would I welcome it? I think I would, at some stage, absolutely.”
Would he ever think of venturing into the political arena with Fine Gael?
“If it was just my decision, I would certainly consider it, but it’s not. I’d be conscious that it’s very difficult on family life, so for those reasons I have always declined. I would think at 57 or 58, it’s a young person’s game. It would be a rare politician who starts off in politics in his late 50s or early 60s. Peter Matthews is the only one I can think of at the moment.”
So it’s not unprecedented.
“No, but while I do have great regard for politicians and I admire people who put themselves out there, it’s a tough old business isn’t it? You need a huge dollop of egotism, you need the proverbial brass neck, you need a dose of idealism, you need to eschew any sensitivity whatsoever, and you just need to be solely focused on yourself. The typical politician, really, is a solo operator.”
Does Kevin possess any of those characteristics?
“No, I’m too sensitive. I have some idealism, I hope. I’ll let others decide on the egotism … I hope not. Notwithstanding what view others might have of me, I’d be reasonably sensitive and that probably rules me out.”
It might rule him in very nicely for a judicial position?
“That’s kind of in the tea leaves isn’t it? I mean if it happens it happens. I’d certainly relish that opportunity if it arose though.”