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My Career: Barrister Sara Phelan


By Sara Phelan
08th Jun 2023

Conor McCabe Photography

My Career: Barrister Sara Phelan

Sara Phelan SC is the current elected Chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, the third female ever to lead the organisation which represents over 2,000 practicising barristers across the state. A Kilkenny native, Sara was called to the Bar in 1996, having previously qualified and practised as a pharmacist for a number of years. Here she tells us more about her career journey to date.

Did you always want to be a barrister?
Absolutely not! It only really crossed my mind that I would actually practise as a barrister when I was in my final year in King’s Inns – before that, I viewed the Diploma in Legal Studies and the Barrister-at-Law Degree course more from a personal development perspective than a pathway to a change of career.

My most formative work experience was… after my undergraduate in Pharmacy, I was working as a community pharmacist in Waterford. Dealing with a wide range of customers and the public was formative, and I still carry those important lessons of empathy, listening and service with me.

A common misconception about what I do is… that I’m always in court! Our work is like an iceberg, the top portion may be in court or before a tribunal, the rest is arguably less glamourous. The preparation and behind-the-scenes work that’s done in advance is unseen but important. Bar Council work also takes up a sizeable chunk of my week, but it is hugely stimulating.

The biggest risk I have taken in my career so far is… taking silk (i.e. reaching the highest barrister’s rank). To use GAA parlance, it’s ‘senior hurling’, but the reality of it is that you have to relinquish much of your previous work, and start again, repositioning yourself with colleagues and clients. My husband Tom and son Hugo have enabled me to achieve this, but also the Law Library is a community of practitioners, so without their encouragement, I most definitely wouldn’t be here. The value of collegiality, friendship and support is one I’m keen to pass on to the next generation of barristers.

I start my working day at… about 8am. I review emails and check my diary on the go over breakfast. No working day is the same, and it’s the variety that keeps me occupied.

I break for lunch at… circa 1pm and depending upon what the afternoon and early evening holds, I usually have something light. I do know I’m not at my best on an empty stomach. The challenge is to build a routine and good quality into my mealtimes! Not an easy thing.

I know it’s been a good day if… I’ve managed to get exercise along the way – whether it’s a swim in the morning or a walk in the evening, something to bring my mind into a different frame.

After a long work week, I destress by… exercise; walking my dog, kayaking (not that I’m doing much of that since taking over as Chair of The Bar of Ireland). As self-employed professionals, we have a poor track record of prioritising health and work-life balance. Thankfully there is more confidence and enlightenment in the professions about the value of switching off!

Conor McCabe Photography

The accomplishment I’m most proud of is… personally, motherhood; professionally, being elected Chair of The Bar of Ireland. The opportunity to shape, contribute, lead and engage with so many issues that impact the experience of the public of our justice system is a privilege, and helps to create a lasting legacy for future practitioners.

If you want to get into my line of work, my advice is to… go for it! The decision to qualify and practice as a barrister is part intuition and part audacity. You only know how you will find it once you start along that path. What I’d say to anyone is, take it one step at a time; do the Diploma or Degree in King’s Inns, you’ll meet fantastic people along the way, regardless of where you end up.

At the moment I’m working on… embedding the Bar of Ireland’s Equitable Briefing Policy. This is one of a number of initiatives at the Bar that aim to support all facets of the legal sector, including clients. We’re asking firms to consider gender when selecting counsel, so as to counter any unconscious bias that might naturally exist. A key plank of the initiative is to support more women to take silk, but they can only do so if they get exposure to the work. There is a chicken-and-egg dynamic, but we have to start somewhere! So far, the response has been great, but we’re only starting!