Lawyer Una Wright

In the latest in our series, profiling Irish and Northern Irish lawyers and jurists who have worked abroad, or are working abroad, we spoke with Una Wright, an environmental lawyer, who grew up in Ballina in County Mayo. Una works as a Lawyer with the Departmental Solicitor’s Office (DSO) in Northern Ireland, advising the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), particularly on Brexit related matters. Una has been working in the environmental field for 9 years after returning to education to study for a masters in environmental law and sustainable development. Prior to this, she worked in a number of other legal roles in Dublin, New York and Melbourne.

IRLI: What is your background/training?

UW: I studied law at University College Dublin, and during that degree I had the good fortune to take part in the Erasmus Programme, studying for a year in Switzerland. Apart from learning to ski, I also took courses in Swiss and Roman law, as well as American law and environmental law from a visiting law lecturer. It was the time of the Bush-Gore Florida election legal challenge, so it was fascinating to get his understanding of those matters. Learning about the differences in legal systems sparked my interest in comparative and public international law. After graduating, I got a great introduction to legal practice, working for the criminal solicitor Michael Staines in Dublin. I remember being in the Central Criminal Court on one of my first days thinking how university did not prepare me for this.  

I was keen to travel and decided to take the New York Bar exam and qualified as an Attorney and Counsellor at Law, New York. I secured employment with the renowned litigator John Q Kelly, who famously was the lead attorney for the Estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in the successful wrongful death action against O.J. Simpson. While I was there, it was the 10 year anniversary of her death and I got a really interesting insight into that case from him. I then moved to a position as a public defence lawyer, trying cases in the New York criminal justice system.

After 6 years in New York, I took a break and travelled to Australia, working as a government lawyer in Melbourne. The work environment there was so pleasant after the gruelling years in New York. It also allowed me the time to take a renewed interest in environmental law and I decided I wanted to specialise in the area and returned to study for my masters at Queen’s University.

Why did you become interested in legal work?

Mary Robinson is from my home town of Ballina, so seeing the work she was involved in as a lawyer from a young age was probably a big inspiration. I also wanted to travel and thought law might offer me the chance to do that. Little did I know that transitioning between countries as a lawyer is not easy. I now think 18 is probably far too young to be choosing a career path, but happily I chose one that I remain interested in and continue to enjoy.

What do you hope to achieve from the work you are doing?

I remember as a child in primary school learning about acid rain and the fight going on at the time to combat the problems that it caused. Legislative action by international organisations and governments across the world managed to reduce that problem substantially. It showed me that the law can be used effectively as a tool to protect the environment. I have seen this time and time again, be it in the introduction of laws to reduce our use of plastic bags (something the Republic of Ireland very much led on; Northern Ireland too in the UK context), to the reduction in air pollution in our cities. when laws banning smoky coal were brought in (though sadly air pollution still causes far too many premature deaths each year).

There are no simple solutions to the complex environmental problems the world faces, but I hope that through my work with DSO that I can play some small role in helping alleviate them by providing independent legal advice to government, ensuring the environmental laws they enact are workable and fit for purpose. The global environmental problems do feel insurmountable at times and you can get despondent, but every so often you get to witness a breakthrough. Ten years ago, when I was studying climate change law at Queens, it felt like there was very little interest among the general public or media in the challenges we are facing with climate change, but thankfully today it seems to be far more on the agenda.

Can you tell us some of your professional experiences that have left quite a mark on you personally?

Working as a public defender in New York has left me with more than a few marks. It was a crazy couple of years that I look back on fondly, but for a young female lawyer with a foreign accent it could be very tough sometimes and it took time to earn the respect of not just my clients, but from colleagues and judges too. I spent every morning in my assigned courtroom and a couple of us covered anything from 30-60 cases a day and you had to squeeze in jail visits before court. It was exhausting and challenging, but there was also a great camaraderie with colleagues. I worked alongside many passionate litigators - who were so committed to their clients and the work - that it was really inspiring.  I tried my first jury trial at 24 and it was a daunting experience, but one that has been invaluable in subsequent roles. I feel it provided me with a confidence to go into any courtroom or face any challenging matter and be able to conduct myself to the best of my ability. It also gave me an appreciation for the Irish or British justice system.

Another role that I got a lot from was when I worked with Oxfam in Northern Ireland. I started volunteering with them when I was in Queens and this led on to a role working for them in campaigns and advocacy for the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland. Oxfam were part of the ‘Enough Food for Everyone IF Campaign’ for that G8 which saw 170 aid organisations come together and unite behind one campaign for that event. It was an exhilarating and fast paced job, where I found myself in some bizarre situations as we organised a range of stunts and events to highlight our policy objectives during the G8 Summit. Meeting some of my colleagues who worked in the field, in particular humanitarian crises, was particularly compelling and spurred me on in the role I played for the organisation.

You work on a wide variety of environmental legal matters, can you tell us a little about them?

I became a government lawyer in Northern Ireland to advise on the impact of Brexit in the environmental field. Brexit aside, the fact that I get to work on such a broad range of environmental matters is thrilling. I love that one week I will be advising on an air quality query and the next on a climate change or chemicals matter. In recent times, I have been fortunate to advise on climate change legislation which is, of course, very much on the agenda worldwide. Undeniably, Brexit has brought so much uncertainty, especially to Northern Ireland, with it having particular impacts for the agriculture and environment sectors here. The scale of the task can be overwhelming, but at the end of the day it is hugely fascinating work. I certainly don’t get bored.

The importance of strengthening the rule of law globally in the environmental field is especially critical at this time. In almost every country in the world, there has been dramatic growth in the number of environmental laws in the past few decades, but there is a real need to ensure these laws are successfully implemented. I previously spent a couple of years in a non-legal post working in environmental enforcement investigating serious environmental crimes. Working in an operational setting was a real eye opener and I think any lawyer could benefit from a period away from a purely legal job. Travelling around Northern Ireland and seeing what people can do to their own land and community was distressing. I had the opportunity to lead investigations on the ground and follow them through, right through to prosecution, but perhaps the most satisfying part of that job was not securing a conviction, but when an offender remediated a site, which sadly happened on far too few occasions.

Why are environmental and sustainability issues so important in the law sphere, in your opinion?

I touched on this earlier, but law can be used as such an effective tool to change people’s behaviour and actions, almost instantly. We witnessed this so clearly in the last year and a half with coronavirus and the introduction of laws, pretty much overnight, that prevented entire populations from going about their usual business. This needs to be harnessed too when we try to address environmental and sustainability issues through law change. In the past, I threw all my rubbish in the one bin, but now as the law requires me to segregate my waste, I cannot imagine going back to the old way. The same with my use of shopping bags. The imposition of a small charge for them made me adapt my behaviour for the betterment of my environment. The EU has recently introduced a ban on certain single-use plastics and, while it might be challenging at first, I am pretty sure that those in countries subject to it will all adapt quickly. But there is an urgent need for more dramatic shifts like this in order for us to really address the sustainability issues we face.

What sort of cases have you been involved with that you would like to discuss/feel are important?

I think criminal defence work is hugely important and maybe because we are so used to living in a functioning, relatively fair system, we don’t always appreciate the different roles that are necessary in order for the justice system to work effectively. People would always ask me things like how can you defend a particular type of crime, but in every defendant I met there was person and a story there. That doesn’t excuse what they may have done, of course. I found that a huge amount of my cases involved people with mental health issues and they were so challenging for me. The American system has a lot of problems and the challenges that jurisdiction faces around issues of equality and race are well documented. Their incarceration rates are also just shocking. I once had a judge try to set bail on someone for not wearing their seatbelt and he didn’t take it too well when I informed him that he simply couldn’t do this.

I have also worked on the prosecution side of things in environmental enforcement which, of course, is a very different type of role but not without its own difficulties.

You previously worked in New York. Why did you decide to work abroad?

I did an exchange to Paris when I was in school and then Erasmus in University and I loved both experiences. I really enjoyed comparative law and learning about different legal systems, so when I saw an advertisement for a course to take the New York Bar Exam that was offered in UCD, I thought it was an exciting opportunity that would possibly afford me the chance to get experience working in a legal setting abroad. I grew up watching American legal dramas, so now realise I had a skewed image of what it would be like. New York is a great place, but they really do live to work. After New York, I worked as a lawyer in Melbourne and the experience couldn’t have been more different. I still worked hard but you weren’t expected to work late and the work environment was just so pleasant.  It also provided me with an opportunity to reflect on what I wanted from my career and where I could contribute going forward.

Your advice to young people entering the legal profession?

I think it is so important to focus on what interests or stimulates you. I have done a range of jobs and it can be soul destroying doing something you are not interested in or that you don’t enjoy. For example, in New York in one particular job it didn’t matter one bit that my office overlooked Fifth Avenue if I wasn’t enjoying the work. That is not to say that every day you have to be thrilled going to work, but that on the whole you find it interesting and it challenges you.

I also think it is important not to be afraid to try something new or different. There are many options open to lawyers today and if you don’t think you have skills in a particular area, there are always ways of getting those skills. Don’t be afraid to ask people in the type of roles you would like how they went about getting there, most often people like to chat about their career and are open to sharing.