When it comes to disaster she's a natural

In cases of personal injury, Geraldine McCool believes the work is as much emotional as legal. Paula Nicolson reports
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The Independent Online
A first encounter with Geraldine McCool suggests an engaging distinction between her natural manner and her record of professional accomplishments. A specialist in personal injury actions, she is a partner with the London firm Leigh, Day & Co. Other commitments include membership of the Law Society's civil litigation committee, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the Legal Practice Course Board's validation and monitoring panel. She also lectures regularly here and in the United States.

The key to the contrasting aspects of her character appear to lie in a mixture of hard work, enthusiasm combined with a self-confidence acquired from early achievement, and unswerving parental support. Her father lends his public relations expertise to her speeches, and her mother, a teacher, equally remains a source of inspiration.

"From childhood my mother saw a career as part of my future," Ms McCool says. "My younger brother was brighter than me, but I worked harder and was more focused."

Her career path shows that focus. Her move to a partnership with Pannone Napier while in her twenties, and succession to head the firm's "disaster" team barely three years later, also marked her entry to the rising area of personal injury litigation. "The fact that this was a new field meant no one had specific expertise, so solicitors did not need years of experience to be effective," she says. "A young person could gain unusual career benefits which I would not have had if, for example, I had gone into the tax side of law, where grey hairs are an advantage."

Her work in personal injury ranges from cases against the Ministry of Defence and claims in the United States for British residents to silicone implant and heart valve litigation.

She continually draws upon the lessons she learnt as a young woman in charge of a department. "Although I often responded to gut reactions, I never took irrevocable action until I had spoken to everyone whose opinion was relevant," she says. "This gave me the confidence of knowing that my decisions were well informed."

She believes management is about ensuring commitment from others. This can be achieved only if there is emphasis on teamwork and the people doing the work are involved in decision-making. "Managers should not keep information from staff. Even if you come to a decision they do not agree with, at least they will know why something has occurred."

Had she not become a solicitor, Ms McCool would have studied psychology; contact with clients is important to her. "As you ascend the legal ladder in most areas of law you lose this, but not in my field. It's only by knowing what makes people tick that you can run a case effectively."

She frequently deals with the bereaved. "Many clients are widows with children and often just need to talk," she says. "They look to me to take over the responsibility for the action from an early stage. This demands trust."

Ms McCool believes women find such inter-personal skills easier to acquire. "Women recognise the work is emotional as well as legal. I have something of both to offer clients."

She suggests that this is one reason why she has not experienced sexist attitudes from clients, in contrast to colleagues on the corporate side of the personal injuries equation who often have different stories to tell. She feels sheltered from gender-stereotyping or discrimination.

"This does not mean that I am unaware of battles still being fought in some firms," she says. "The problem is massive, particularly for women with children. I've seen time and again how women are forced to change their priorities when they have children. They put their families first, and male colleagues moan."

She believes these women make an emotional decision to continue to work well, but the cost is to give up ambition.

She has produced a report on gender inequality in the Canadian legal profession and is disappointed that the Law Society has not taken a similar initiative.

"In some cases discrimination is so deep it emerges without effort. Some senior men perpetuate the gentlemen's club atmosphere." She has some understanding of this: "I get on better with women and feel comfortable with women trainees. When I was head of department I realised that I was appointing in my own image without being aware of doing it."

She is clear that the more men there are in positions of power, the more often aspiring women are likely to experience prejudice. The Young Solicitors' Group, which she chaired in 1993/94, addresses these issues. "At one meeting we talked about sexual harassment, and some men turned it into a joke. The women did not find it funny."

The writer is a lecturer in medical psychology at the University of Sheffield.

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