Lisa McKenna, founder of McKenna and Co Solicitors, shares her life and business lessons as she scales one of Dublin’s fastest-growing law firms.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
Ever since I was a child, I’d wanted to help people. Law felt like a way I could do that, using my personality, voice and ability. As I got older, this feeling turned into conviction as a career in law and my own nature seemed a good fit.
My first internship was with a law firm based in County Monaghan.
“I started McKenna & Co Solicitors from scratch and the firm has grown exponentially”
Maria Connolly was the Principal of the firm. She was an incredible leader to learn from, and I really looked up to her as a strong, independent woman.
This excellent foundation gave me the confidence to move to Dublin.
Initially, I worked in the legal department of a bank. Then I moved on to a traineeship role in a law firm in Dublin 7. And then I worked for some time in a large corporate law firm.
My long-term vision, however, had always been to set up and run my own law firm.
I’m delighted to say that in November 2017 this vision became a reality.
I started McKenna & Co Solicitors from scratch and the firm has grown exponentially.
Last year, we moved into our new home, which the whole team loves, in a beautiful Georgian building in the heart of the city at 115 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2.
“I initially self-funded the company from a client base of zero. Within five years, we had served more than 2,000 clients”
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
One of my guiding beliefs in life is that we should all give more than we take.
My career in law, and the business I’m building with the help of my team, is my way of fulfilling my legacy of creating a positive impact in the world. I especially want to make a difference in the spaces of charity, community and change for the better.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
I initially self- funded the company from a client base of zero. Within five years, we had served more than 2,000 clients.
I was advised by an advisor to the business before I set it up that I would not make profit until year five. In fact, I turned a profit by month six. The firm is scaling at present to an additional five staff this year. I see job creation as a way to give back to the Irish community after the more challenging years of Covid.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
My team and I at McKenna & Co Solicitors treat each case we take on as our own personal case.
This is not fluffy marketing speak. Our clients frequently comment on the level of care and expertise they are treated with by our team.
We embed the personal touch into everything we do.
As a result, our reputation continues to grow from strength to strength and we are attracting clients from many bigger and older firms.
We’ve been recognised by many awards.
And I’m also not too sentimental to share that I keep every thank you card we receive from clients. They’re lined up on a table in our boardroom. Our whole team draws immense inspiration from these cards and they remind us of why we do what we do.
“You have to ensure that, in the midst of growth, you’re surrounded and supported by the right people who will seek to help you rise and who want the best for you”
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
My father was my greatest inspiration.
He was the truest definition of hard work and commitment. He worked day and night to achieve all that he had, and he instilled the same quality in me.
My Dad ran his own business too, and I’ve always drawn a lot of inspiration and creativity from him.
My husband Darren, whom I met 18 years ago, has been my rock on all the good and the bad days of business. He’s that person that I can say anything to, and, whether I want to hear it or not, he’ll tell me the truth. I know I can trust him with my life.
Separately, I’ve had so many amazing couches, friends and mentors along the way. All of whom have helped and supported me with mindset and challenges. There are too many to name but all of which have had a significant impact on me and the business.
“Do not underestimate what a powerful ingredient positive energy is in growing a business. And growing yourself!”
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
The best piece of business advice I received has been from a mentor who told me to “Surround myself with positive, supportive people”.
I know that may seem like a cliché, but in business your time is precious. You have to ensure that, in the midst of growth, you’re surrounded and supported by the right people who will seek to help you rise and who want the best for you.
Do not underestimate what a powerful ingredient positive energy is in growing a business. And growing yourself!
“There is little mentorship support for solicitors in the legal profession who branch out on their own”
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
I think resilience is one of the main qualities that marks the difference.
When times get hard and/or challenging, we all have two choices.
You can either succumb to the challenges or pick yourself up and search for the opportunity.
You will always get knock backs in business/life. I’ve had more than I can remember. But actually the knock backs are not the issue; it’s how you react to them that counts. And when you navigate a challenge and come out the other end, you have grown new muscles and strength to face the next knock back.
Also, networking at the start of a business is vital to building trust and confidence – and connections. Like everything you have to continue to build on that and be consistent.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
The lack of guidance and or support on day one was a challenge.
There is little mentorship support for solicitors in the legal profession who branch out on their own. I also feel that in true Irish style, we find it hard to ask for help and or support. We imagine that asking for help can be seen as a weakness; when in fact, most people want to help and or support you.
I hold fond memories of Gerald Keane reaching out to me and taking me out for a coffee and mentored me on setting up. His support was invaluable and I will be forever grateful for it.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
You have to be versatile and adaptive to challenges as you never know what’s around the corner, Covid or otherwise.
Figuring out different revenue streams, year on year, and being creative and optimistic with the business is really the biggest lesson I learnt.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
I’m always looking for tech to replace and or automate repetitive tasks, and bit by bit we do this to make the office more efficient.
That being said, law is a paper heavy industry where a lot of the deeds and contracts are still in paper form which means it’s hard to get as much digital transformation as I wish.
“I always advise my team that it’s okay to make a mistake but it’s important that you take a learning from it. Failure and failing hard means that you’re growing”
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I don’t think I would change anything per se as everything I did brought me to the success that I have today. I’m also the type of person that if I have a knock back in business, it pushes me to come back fighting threefold.
If you were to push me for an answer, I would say I probably would find more time for me which would have allowed me to be a better leader to my team. I’m a perfectionist and I put 110% into all that I do so when I started the business, I worked day and night, seven days a week. Realistically that’s not what the body or mind is fit for, and when I look back I wonder where I got the strength.
Who inspires you in business today?
This is always a difficult question to answer as I have seen so many incredible business owners grow from strength to strength and break glass ceilings, in particular women.
One businesswoman who always stands out to me from the crowd is, Chupi Sweetman, CEO of Chupi Jewellery, who designs timeless heirlooms. She is a powerhouse who has made instrumental strides in her field, and I would see her as an inspiration to so many.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
I always advise my team that it’s okay to make a mistake but it’s important that you take a learning from it. Failure and failing hard means that you’re growing.
I rarely hire someone based on intellect alone. Knowledge will come; I mainly hire based on attitude, caring and empathic qualities as these are vital to your connection with a client.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I love my notebooks for organisation, I didn’t grow up in the PC era and tend to always fall back to handwriting. I also use the Head Plan book as it acts as a guide to positivity and mental wellbeing.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
LinkedIn is the one I grew up with, and it feels most familiar to me. I think it’s the most professional one, and I know my market there. Although I had a laugh one year, when someone slipped into my messages on Valentine’s Day one year with a message that was not about law.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
I think everything in due course will become more automated. At the moment, you have a lot of speech recognition tools that replace secretaries. You see ChatGPT which can automate replies to emails so I think these are examples of how tech is shifting a lot of manual jobs to automated jobs.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Always follow your gut.
It will never lead you wrong. If someone tells you that you can’t do something it may be because they know that they can’t, so always follow your own dreams and believe in yourself. If you can see it, if you can dream it, then you can achieve it and live your life to your full potential.