Hailing from Dungloe in County Donegal, Gerard McElwee is a partner in European Product Law at Fieldfisher in Brussels. We spoke with him recently for the latest edition in our ongoing series dedicated to the work of lawyers from Ireland and Northern Ireland all over the world.
Hi Gerard, many thanks for speaking with us today. To start, could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
My name is Gerard McElwee, and I'm a Partner in European Product Law at Fieldfisher. From Dungloe in Donegal, I have been working as a lawyer in Brussels for ten years doing chemicals law – advising companies on product compliance and litigation. The types of products are everything from air purifiers to water filters to hand gels. It’s not your typical party-time chat but very interesting work, especially now with the push for sustainability across many sectors, including chemicals.
What is your background/training?
I did a BA and LLB at NUIG, then H Dip BS at Smurfit, and an LLM in Brussels. I trained in Eversheds in Dublin.
Why did you become interested in legal work?
Honestly, it was a spin of the dice. Once I got started, I enjoyed it.
What do you hope to achieve from the work you are doing?
Give the best advice to my clients; grow the practice and assist the team with their career trajectories; and help to improve the regulation of chemicals in any small way.
Can you tell us some of your professional experiences that have left quite a mark on you personally?
I recall having an awful senior lawyer in my junior days that micro-managed every aspect of my work – I try to do the opposite with my team!
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and given supply shortages, we advertised and gave free advice to companies (both big and small) looking to fast-track their hand gels and face masks to market. It was our small contribution to helping with the pandemic fight.
You are working in Brussels. Can you tell us what you do there and with whom?
Sure, I work in a law firm called Fieldfisher. It's a European law firm with satellite offices in San Francisco and China. I advise big MTNs and also SMEs on how to get their products to market under EU legislation – i.e. is the product safe, is it efficacious, etc. We work a lot with Member State authorities, and also the European Commission and its agencies (ECHA, EFSA, etc).
Why did you decide to work abroad?
I always enjoyed the international aspect of law (clients, colleagues, and the nature of the law itself) and was less inclined to the more traditional general practitioner role. Also, prospects in Ireland were not great in 2011.
What drives you to do what you do?
I really enjoy the challenge and puzzle of the cases presented to us. Also, I find the area really interesting and it's coming increasingly under the spotlight. My drive stems from a wish to help clients to the maximum extent and to help team members grow. I also put a lot of time into progressing ESG issues at work and am delighted they are getting the attention they deserve.
What kind of impact would you like to make?
Aside from the above, to contribute to better regulation of chemicals in Europe. We have the best system in the world but there is room for improvement!
Do you have any advice for young people entering the legal profession?
Work hard and prioritise getting the right experience. Don’t be afraid to travel – if you have a common law background, that can open doors in Brussels, Australia, Dubai, the US, etc. Treat opponents, clients, and team members with respect – it always comes around. And you can't talk to enough lawyers when planning your legal career.
Anything else that you would like to add?
Sure – if any junior lawyers/trainees/graduates want an insight into the Brussels legal sector, drop me an email. I'm happy to help.