Faith, hope and clarity for lawyer seeking a new start
Former Shepherd & Wedderburn chairman Hugh Donald tells David Lee why he's now working with the Church of Scotland
IT'S fair to say that 37 years is a long time to spend with one legal firm - and when lawyers chalk up that amount of service, they are usually happy to retire to the golf course.
Hugh Donald isn't a golfer. So, at the age of 59, when he left Big Four firm Shepherd & Wedderburn, having served time as both chief executive and chairman, he took a rather different path. He now describes himself as a coach and mediator. Others tend to prefer "great bloke" or "brilliant people person". One former colleague says: "Hugh did the appraisals at ShepWedd and had an uncanny knack of finding out what made people tick."
Donald stepped down as a partner after 33 years in March but had a "fairly active role" until June. He says the time was right to move on - and while he's given up the rigours and long hours of legal life, his new career is no vanity project. What is occupying most of his time and energy is A Place of Hope, an initiative to put the Church of Scotland back where it used to be - at the heart of building peace and reconciliation, and resolving disputes.
Donald has always found himself at the heart of disputes - trying to sort them out, rather than joining in the rammy. "I was always on the people side of disputes, and in the early days built up a family law practice at ShepWedd. I also volunteered to do Citizens' Advice Bureau legal clinics on Wednesday nights and learned a lot there."
This family law thread was to run through Donald's career, despite him veering off into such disparate sectors as medical negligence and aviation, including an interest in the Lockerbie case ("Fascinating but I can't talk about it," he says).
Over a period of time, Donald and others became very discontented with the process of dealing with disputes involving children through the courts. This led to the creation of the Family Mediation service in the Lothian region, which spread across Scotland. He was involved in Family Mediation Scotland for 20 years, including a period as chair. He was awarded an OBE for this work, which he received in 2000 at the same ceremony that Sir Sean Connery - not renowned in his screen life for trying to resolve disputes through mediation - was knighted.
Through Family Mediation, Donald became involved in resolving disputes through different means. He trained as a mediator and has been involved with Core Solutions, Scotland's leading commercial mediation business, which celebrates its tenth anniversary in January, for almost a decade.He thinks mediation has taken huge steps forward: "Many lawyers have embraced it and become mediators, and many act in a more facilitative matter in disputes, but I'm not sure the judicial system has embraced not just mediation, but the need to be more flexible and responsive to serve the interests of those caught up in disputes.
"We are pointing in the right direction but need to find ways of moving through this journey more quickly."
Donald's own journey saw him become chief executive at S&W from 1994-9 and then chairman from 2005-2010. "Chairman is an interesting role and can be very different from firm to firm," he muses. "You play to your individual strengths. There has been a real sea change in the leadership and management of law firms. Before the Nineties, many firms were managed by a partner doing it as a sideline to the day job."
In those days, life was easier for lawyers, he claims: "Business came through the door, it was less competitive and clients were less questioning about the service they received. That's very different to now, where consumers have a huge amount of choice about what services they want, how they are delivered and at what cost."
Lawyers have more choice too: "Lawyers move around far more than they used to, which raises big leadership questions about how you recruit and retain good people. That demands much greater understanding of the nature of the business, the values and where it is going."
Donald isn't sure that legal training has kept pace with the need for stronger, better leadership: "Training equips lawyers with skills to be very good lawyers but does not in itself translate into being good leaders. Leaders need to be equipped and encouraged for the demands of running a business."
As for himself, Donald says: "Personally, I have always felt my skills lay in people development; I have always had a desire to identify strengths in others and give them an environment in which they can flourish and create their own potential."
But what of Donald's own potential after 37 years? "I had an increasing sense of not being as fulfilled for myself and thinking there was something more out there. I thought the skills I had could be further developed outwith the legal sector. I had done the career bit, now I wanted the vocation.
"What I am doing is bringing together the component parts of Hugh Donald in a more integrated way. I find myself mediating but in a way that is not just resolving differences and disputes but hoping to make life better for the individuals involved.
"This links to coaching in the sense that it is about people going through significant change and wanting help to find out who they really are and point in a new direction. What I offer is a conversation with people, using some mediation skills to probe under the surface and help them find the answers they already have for themselves."
Donald's own answers have been shaped by his beliefs."I have been a Christian for a long time, but I have had a sense of my faith being renewed and deepened in the last couple of years," he explains. "When I left Shepherd & Wedderburn, I wasn't quite sure what my new world would look like, but one of the approaches was from The Church of Scotland and its Place for Hope initiative."
Donald describes it as a "peacemaking and reconciling project within our society" and adds: "It brings my interests from the world of conflict management and mediation together with a sense of calling."
A Place for Hope involves training a number of individuals within the Kirk as mediators and will encourage - inside the Church and outside - "healthy conversations which recognise our differences, establish common purpose and potentially offer positive transformation of the conflict".
Donald says: "It's about how to speak honestly to each other without an atmosphere of blame. If the Church can do it, then it can teach communities to do it."
He adds: "I'm working with some young lawyers now and trying to equip them with the soft skills to improve the quality of their relationships with clients and colleagues. When I talk to young lawyers struggling to get jobs, I try to give them the ability to step back and wonder 'Is law what I want to do anyway? Is there more to it?' I think that's really healthy."
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