Dave Veale’s interview with Mary-Eileen O’Brien, Carleton Law Group (formerly Sherwood & Flanagan) as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.
The room is noticeably brighter when Mary-Eileen Flanagan, a Saint John based lawyer, walks in. She radiates energy and her enthusiasm is absolutely infectious. I am convinced that these are the traits that have supported Mary-Eileen buck convention and build her law firm in a non-traditional manner.A few years ago Mary-Eileen became aware, as her law practice (Sherwood & Flanagan) grew, that non-adversarial and interest-based processes yielded far more benefits for most families than did positional negotiations and the “win or lose” nature of traditio nal family law in determining issues of divorce and child custody. This awareness inspired her to shift her practice to Collaborative Family Law, where issues are resolved out of court, and to introduce a collaborative approach into virtually every aspect of her business life. Dave: When I think of you, Mary-Eileen, I think of someone who is very dynamic and who has an immense amount of energy. Where does this positive energy come from? ME: I think that the way that I was parented promoted that. We were always told that we could achieve, that we had something to contribute and that we had a responsibility to use the talents that we were given in a responsible way. I came from a family where there was lots of humour and successes that we celebrated. So it was easy to be positive. Dave: You are blazing your own trail, in a sense, would I be correct in saying that you don’t run your law firm in a typical way? ME: Definitely not. Dave: The collaborative process is a different approach to working with people how do you interact with your clients? ME: At times clients model our behaviour. If we slam our fists on the table and make demands, the clients often adopt the same posture and the same tone. If they watch us be imaginative and collaborative then we are empowering them to do the same thing. It’s okay to use a process that compliments the way you want to live the rest of your life. Just because you’re reconfiguring your family life doesn’t mean that you have to throw away all the skills you have as a human being and now do things in a completely foreign way, that’s jarring. To use a different language, use a different posture, to use a magic book of rules that some stranger has to decipher for you, it’s incongruent. Dave: Was there any fear when you stepped outside of the main stream and into collaborative law? ME: Yes, there was fear. It was fear of being rejected by my peers, the paranoia that people were talking behind your back and saying “you’re not really a lawyer anymore because you don’t go to court.” Every lawyer wants to be known as being effective in court, solid in the law and a good advocate. That’s the image of a lawyer that you embrace when you go to law school and arguing something successfully – that’s the hallmark of being a good lawyer. The thing that concerned me was that the collaborative process wouldn’t be recognized as a legitimate way to practice law. Dave: What helped you overcome this fear? ME: It was my clients and the families that we assisted. And the way I felt when I drove home every night. There wasn’t a disconnect between the way I spoke at work, the language I used in letters at work, and the way I spoke with my children when I came in the front door. I didn’t have a different posture during the day and then have to decompress on the drive home from work and make a switch. Dave: What have you learned about building a business? ME: Besides the hard work, a lot of it has to do with integrity. That you do what you say you are going to do and to the best of your ability. It is also important that you don’t change gears because it’s awkward or difficult or you have to tell somebody something that they don’t want to hear. You need to surround yourself with people who support your vision and share your values. Dave: What are the most difficult decisions you have to make as a business owner? ME: Staffing is a big one – making sure that you have the right people. We also came to the realization that we can’t take every single file. A situation might be compelling but we screen heavily because we want to work with people who share our vision and want to participate meaningfully in resolving the issues and want to have better skills at the end of the day. Dave: What advice would you give, based on your experiences, to someone who is charting a different path or leading in a way that would not be considered mainstream? ME: You have to be patient, everyone’s not necessarily going to jump on board right away and you might have to repeat the message several times. You might have to massage the message and the message might have to mature as you mature in your understanding of what it is you need to do and why you need to do it. Patience is critical here. The integrity piece as well. Don’t morph into something else the first time you get resistance. Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com. His column appears every other Thursday. To read past columns go to www.LeadershipUnleashed.ca
Photo: Kate Braydon/Telegraph-Journal
Published September 9, 2010 in the Telegraph Journal