Alumni Stories – Diane Sutton speaks to alumna Hazel Smyth BL
Welcome to next in our series of Alumni Stories with Diane Sutton, our Member Relations Officer.
The second part of the Series was with Richard McElwee BL, Head of Communications and Legal Counsel at Rugby Players Ireland. Read the article HERE.
In this series, Diane will chat to a variety of King’s Inns graduates focusing on the degree of Barrister–at–Law first before we delve into other course graduates. It will hopefully embrace the diversity of our alumni who are practising in the Courts in Ireland and internationally but also working in many other professions like communications, politics, the public sector, education, and policy.
As the new Member Relations Officer at King’s Inns, over the past few months Diane has been working on getting to know more about King’s Inns, its long history and cultural heritage, our alumni and subscribing members, and of course, our wide range of law courses.
Through her research for the series, Diane is discovering the degree of Barrister–at–Law provides you with a highly–valued professional qualification that can be used across a wide range of professions, as well as a strong foundation for further academic studies.
If you are interested in being part of our Alumni Stories series, drop Diane Sutton an email at MEMBERS@KINGSINNS.IE.
Diane Sutton in conversation with Hazel Smyth
Every day, people around the world use SurveyMonkey to get answers to more than 20 million questions and turn data into business results. I spoke to Hazel Smyth BL, Legal Counsel at SurveyMonkey’s European Headquarters in Dublin, about her time at King’s Inns and career path pre and post–graduation. Hazel is also a Green Party councillor for the Mullingar–Kinnegad District, Co. Westmeath.
Q – Hi Hazel, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I’m interested, firstly, to know why you chose the area of law – was there a strong tradition in your family? Or perhaps someone or some situation that influenced your decision to study law?
Despite taking several science subjects for the Leaving Cert, I soon discovered that my strengths and interests were pointing me towards the arts. I loved History, English, Irish and French. My love of history beckoned me towards law also as I learnt about the many admirable individuals of the past with legal backgrounds who managed to bring about great, positive change in society – including Mary Robinson.
Growing up we had only one relative who worked in law, a great–Uncle based in Texas. His stories of seeking justice for the ‘good guys’ were fascinating and probably did influence both my younger sister and I to pursue careers in law too. My hope was that “playing to my strengths”, I could help others in a meaningful way.
Q – What made you decide to apply specifically for the degree of Barrister–at–Law at King’s Inns?
Following four great years in a comfortable academic bubble studying Law and French in University College Cork and Université de Montpellier, I entered the working world that had just been hit with a huge financial crisis. The outlook had changed drastically since when I started my undergraduate degree. I had been accepted to a masters in Trinity College and decided I needed a summer job before then. Despite applying for a job as a French helpdesk role, I was fortunate enough to land a new role within an international tax company as a Contracts Manager. I gained really valuable experience whilst working there and decided to forgo the Masters in Trinity College and undertake a Masters in International Commercial Law that I could complete whilst working full–time.
Almost two years later, I moved into a similar role with the Fortune 500 engineering and construction company, AECOM. At this point, I decided that I needed to become professionally qualified. Within my legal team at AECOM, a fellow colleague recommended that I do the part–time degree of Barrister–at–Law. Admittedly, I wasn’t aware at the time that this was option! It was an ideal route for me, and AECOM kindly supported me with this too.
Q – Did you encounter any difficulties or obstacles, particularly as you were studying part–time, and how did you overcome them?
My role within AECOM was wonderfully diverse. In addition to providing legal support to the entire Irish business, I was also assigned to support our international development / government management services team that provided humanitarian aid on behalf of the UK government to various projects in mainly Sub–Saharan countries and further afield. This meant assisting with teams based in various time zones and with some critically important projects. It was very demanding, particularly as I was studying at King’s Inns at the same time. I learnt a great deal about time management whilst studying at King’s Inns.
It has always been important to me to prioritise time with family and friends, as well as making time for exercise and volunteering activities.
It has always been important to me to prioritise time with family and friends, as well as making time for exercise and volunteering activities. The support of AECOM at the time, my fellow classmates at King’s Inns as well as my family and friends really made it all possible. I was very lucky to be working with someone within AECOM who was undertaking the course at the same time as me, which was really helpful too.
Q – Was there anything you learnt at King’s Inns, or people you met, or situations you encountered that you would say particularly equipped you for your working life?
I learnt a great deal from talking with and listening to the people I met at the part–time course at King’s Inns. There were people undertaking the course from all walks of life – banking, trade unions, government, etc. I gained great insights from them. We still communicate regularly as a group and it’s truly invaluable to have such a diverse group of comrades to be able to confer with.
There were people undertaking the course from all walks of life – banking, trade unions, government, etc. I gained great insights from them.
I found all four pillars of the Barrister–at–Law course – advocacy, consultation, drafting and negotiation – to be hugely advantageous to both my work as an in–house legal counsel and as local councillor. I still refer to my manuals from time to time!
Hazel celebrating her graduation ceremony in King’s Inns with her much loved Father and dearly missed Mother.
Q – Can you tell me a little bit more about your time in AECOM as Legal Counsel, a position you held prior to SurveyMonkey?
With almost 90,000 employees (including more than 600 on the island of Ireland), AECOM is a huge construction and engineering company. I loved my time working at AECOM and had the opportunity to provide legal support on some of the most exciting, largest construction and infrastructure projects in Ireland at the time – including the LinkedIn offices in Dublin, Grangegorman and the Curragh Racecourse. There was never a dull moment!
I will always be grateful to AECOM and my talented former colleagues there for the excellent, varied training I received there – from reviewing 100+ page contracts to drafting pre–litigation letters, providing training, dealing with privacy matters to setting up new contract management systems. In 2016, I was asked to provide legal support to our international development / government management team with their projects to deliver humanitarian aid on behalf of the UK government. I spent most of my time in London assisting the team there. It was an incredible experience working on such exciting, worthwhile projects and using my legal skills in such a rewarding way.
Q – What path then brought you to SurveyMonkey? What is your role there, and do you get to use your language skills?
In 2016, I attended an event in the Mansion House which had an array of leaders from the business world and government who spoke about how technology was changing every sector – whether it was retail, health or construction. I had already begun to see this within AECOM with the use of BIM (building information modelling) and the impact of GDPR. Considering this, I was interested in delving into the technology sector and learning even more about it. I loved the vision of SurveyMonkey, which is to ‘power the curious’ and its mission to empower people to gather data to better inform decisions and behaviours.
I work as a privacy counsel within an excellent broader legal team and assisting teams based around the world. I love learning about how the other teams within SurveyMonkey operate and working alongside them to build appropriate data protection measures into everything we do. It’s a vibrant work environment and pleasure to work in such an open, fun workplace.
Q – I couldn’t do this article without mentioning Covid–19…how have you and your SurveyMonkey colleagues been coping? Has it affected/will it affect in the future how you work in a legal capacity?
It was marvellous to see how well prepared SurveyMonkey was to prepare with the Covid–19 crisis. As an agile international technology company, we had access to all the necessary technology already to easily facilitate a transition to remote working. However, the additional steps taken by the company such as providing support to purchase appropriate office equipment, regular surveys to gather feedback on pain points or charms of working from home, slack channels to share working from home tips, virtual wellness classes and casual zoom catch ups really made a huge difference to making the transition very comfortable and enjoyable. In fact, it would not surprise me if many within SurveyMonkey continue to work remotely to avoid long commutes and to allow for better work/life balance.
Embracing her love of adventure and the great outdoors, Hazel pictured in the San Pedro de Atacama desert in Chile.
Q – Do you have any advice for other graduates who are working in–house?
I would definitely recommend anyone currently working in–house who might be hoping to qualify professionally and progress their career as an in–house legal counsel to pursue the degree of Barrister–at–Law. I would recommend speaking to your employer about this as an option considering it can be carried out predominantly at weekends and should not impede your normal working week for the most part. It was a more attractive option for me as I wanted to continue working in–house rather than being required to carry out a trainee contract within a law firm as a trainee solicitor. The option always exists for those who decide later to.
The training provided through the degree of Barrister–at–Law provides really key practical skills to an in–house legal professional that are both versatile and beneficial in lots of different settings.
The training provided through the degree of Barrister–at–Law provides really key practical skills to an in–house legal professional that are both versatile and beneficial in lots of different settings (as I can attest to!). In addition, it is fantastic to have the opportunity to study alongside individuals from such different backgrounds is fantastic, as well as the collegiality that exists within the King’s Inns community.
Q – As well as your busy role at SurveyMonkey, you are also a Councillor for Mullingar; I notice your particular areas of interest include health and justice, and that you “stand for women, minorities and young people who often feel voiceless in our governing bodies”. Can you tell me a little bit about your work and how your BL qualification relates?
It was a great honour to be elected last year as a local councillor within my hometown; it is a challenging but rewarding role. There are often negotiations involved with other committee members, executive members of the Council, etc. and my skills from King’s Inns are often put to good use. In addition, there can often be a need to draft letters on behalf of individuals or groups and to consult with these individuals also.
As a member of the Environment Strategic Policy Committee, Regional Health Forum, Joint Policing Committee and as Deputy Mayor (until recently) of Mullingar, I regularly advocate strongly on behalf of individuals within the area. I have worked with many women in vulnerable situations who feel more comfortable reaching out to another woman in their moment of crisis.
It has been wonderful through my role on the board of management of a local school, as an invitee to Green Flag events and through other local events to connect with and help support young people in the community also. It is a great privilege to be able to advocate on behalf of those more vulnerable in our society and to champion their causes. It really makes it all worthwhile.
I am always happy to find opportunities to put the skills I’ve acquired over the years, whether in Kings Inns or elsewhere, to good use to help others – whether through the free legal aid clinic, ALONE or a volunteer legal director on the board of NGOs. I have learnt so much from working in these diverse communities and love connecting with people with different perspective and outlooks to mine.
Q – Women in Law – do you think there are adequate opportunities for women currently; if not how could/should it change? What has been your experience?
I count myself to be very lucky to have worked on international legal teams with many incredibly talented, skilled female lawyers, including female chief legal counsels in both cases. I completed a short legal internship within a human rights/immigration law firm in Dublin after graduating from university also and had the opportunity to work with some awesome female lawyers there too.
My experience in the in–house legal sphere is that there are wonderful job opportunities out there for the taking, which provide collaborative, fun work environments and plenty of chances to flex those “legal brain muscles” too. I would love to see more of the terrifically capable women run for politics though. We certainly need more women in the Dáil, Seanad and in our Council Chambers throughout the country and I hope to work hard to encourage other women to put themselves forward for it.
My experience in the in–house legal sphere is that there are wonderful job opportunities out there for the taking, which provide collaborative, fun work environments and plenty of chances to flex those “legal brain muscles” too.
Q – We recently witnessed a defining moment in politics with the historic formation of a three–way coalition between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. As a member of the Green Party, what impact do you hope they will have?
“Top down change” is required in order to address the climate emergency that our planet is faced with. I would love to see the Green Party leading the way on this within a coalition government, to ensure that we have strong positive influence and impact on Irish lives and to protect our precious environment for future generations to come too.