Described as one of the leading lawyers of her generation, Christine O' Neill KC is a recognised expert on public and constitutional law issues in Scotland.

Alongside her role as Brodies LLP Chair, she is an accredited mediator and solicitor advocate and her hallmark is developing strong client relationships and providing clear, practical advice. Christine was appointed as Queen's Counsel (now King's Counsel) in 2020.

With such an impressive CV, David Lee talks to Christine about how and why she embarked on her legal career, the lessons she has learned along the way, and her hopes for the future of the law and the profession.

David Lee, Podcast host

David Lee is an experienced journalist, writer and broadcaster based in Scotland. He is the host of Brodies' podcast series Podcasts by Brodies.

David Lee, Podcast host]


In conversation with Christine O'Neill KC

00:00:05 David Lee, Host

Hello and welcome to Podcasts by Brodies. My name is David Lee and today I'm joined by Brodies Chair, Christine O'Neill KC.

Described by her colleague and Brodies' Managing Partner, Nick Scott, as one of the leading lawyers of her generation, Christine is a recognised expert on public and constitutional law. She is a Solicitor Advocate and her hallmark is developing strong client relationships and providing clear practical advice. She was appointed as Queen's Counsel, now King's Counsel, in 2020 and with such an impressive CV, and undoubtedly busy schedule combining client work with her leadership role, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Christine today.

Welcome, Christine, how are you doing?

00:00:51 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

Very well. Hello, David. Nice to see you.

00:00:53 David Lee, Host

A bit of background first, Christine, on your legal career, where did it all begin? Where did you go to school? Did you want to be a lawyer? What stirred those legal thoughts in the young Christine's head?

00:01:06 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So the truth is, I never wanted to be a lawyer. There was no grand plan. I went to school which is now Our Lady in St Patrick's High School in Dumbarton, but was then Notre Dame High School Dumbarton Girls School and I just liked school. I liked learning. I was lucky enough to be bright. I had absolutely no direction and no idea what I wanted to do and by the time I got to applying for university, I had decided that what I really wanted to do was small particle physics, so I had applied to Glasgow University and been admitted because Glasgow was, at that stage, involved in a project that would become the development of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland and that was my great anticipated passion. Then a teacher said no, you can't possibly do that, and you've got very good exam results. You really have to do something like law or medicine and my bedside manner, as my colleagues will attest, is not perfect, so law felt like the better option. That was the extent of the plan, David.

00:02:09 David Lee, Host

At what point did you then get the bug? You went to university to study law, what did you think as someone who didn't necessarily want to do it in the first place? When did you get the bug? When did you think this is alright?

00:02:26 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

Well, pretty quickly because, and it's one of the great things about law as an academic subject and also as something to do in your career, law is not a single thing. So it's a very wide-ranging area you can study and practise in a wide variety of different areas and that is the great challenge and the great benefit of being involved in law. I studied at Glasgow, and I studied law and philosophy, so I would degree in law and moral philosophy and it was the thinking about law, the theory about law that was of interest to me, but particularly in the area of constitutional law. So, thinking about how the government and the state works for us, works with us, works against us and how we relate to the power within government and within the state was always the thing that I was most interested in.

00:03:19 David Lee, Host

As well as that specific interest, what did you think about your own sort of personality in your way of learning? What made you think I've got some skills I could be good at this? What did you have inside you that you thought I can really apply myself to this, I could really get into this?

00:03:39 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

I think that what law teaches you and that was very comfortable for me, is a way of thinking, a method, and I think that's why philosophy was a good companion subject to law, they both teach you to think in a particular way to unpick assumptions and arguments that are made by other people to look for the evidence to support those propositions and I really enjoy that method and that way of thinking and from time to time bring it home to my domestic life in a way that is not always as successful as it might be in the workplace.

00:04:16 David Lee, Host

What about your inspirations, Christine? Who put the fire in the young Christine O'Neill's belly when it really came to pushing forward into the law?

00:04:27 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So, I've said before and I say in many different contexts, that I think it's really important for all of us to have what I call heroes. So there's a lot of discussion, I think, in professional life, about having mentors, people who help you to get to the next stage in your career but I think it's just as important to have heroes so they are the people that you want to be when you get to the next stage of your career, the people that you look at and you say ‘yeah I’d quite like to be them when I grow up’ and I've had lots of heroes, I've been very lucky at Brodies to have heroes. One of those was a partner called David Williamson, the first partner I worked for at Brodies who sadly passed away before I got to be his partner at Brodies. He was a unique person, a clever lawyer, a driven lawyer, a compassionate lawyer, the kind of person anyone would want to be. Another of my heroes at Brodies is my predecessor as Chair, Joyce Cullen I described Joyce is my first phone call if ever I was in trouble, if ever I am in trouble, she is the first person that I turn to for advice because as well as being an excellent lawyer, Joyce has a degree of wisdom and poise that I don't think I will ever get when I grow up.

00:05:45 David Lee, Host

So, she's kind of your legal phone a friend, if you ever found yourself on a legal version of who wants to be a millionaire, Joyce is definitely the first call.

00:05:47 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

She absolutely is. I do from time to time. I should also say on the advocacy side, and I know we're going to talk about advocacy, I had a great privilege of being first standing junior to the Scottish Government for a number of years, which means that you're involved in very high level advocacy and some serious cases and at that stage I worked very closely with the then Lord Advocate James Wolfe and the Solicitor General Alison di Rollo, and both were immense inspirations to me in that role.

00:06:25 David Lee, Host

Just going back a little bit, Christine, to when you came out of university, presumably you did your diploma, where did you start in law? How did you come into the career that you're in now?

00:06:37 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So I studied at Glasgow. You're right. I did the diploma and then I was lucky, I went to America for a year, I got a scholarship to study at Harvard Law School. So, I took a year there to do some more legal theory and some more constitutional law and legal history and I came back to a firm that doesn't exist anymore in Glasgow to have my traineeship as a general practice lawyer in Glasgow and I thought very hard about what I wanted to do when I got to the end of my traineeship and I was very lucky, I've always been lucky in terms of timing, it was 1999 and for a constitutional lawyer there was an awful lot happening so we had devolution in Scotland and Wales in Northern Ireland. We had the Human Rights Act just coming into effect. The Labour government had also passed Freedom of Information legislation, data protection legislation. There was a lot going on. At that point, I was very fortunate to get a year doing public law as a lecturer at Edinburgh Law School, and I did that for a year before I came to Brodies.

00:07:47 David Lee, Host

In 1999 as well, everybody was worried about the Millennium bug from memory and that everything, all the systems, all the nascent systems were going to crash and the world was going to come tumbling down. Christine, just interested, how did you find Harvard? How did Harvard compare to what your preconceptions were before you went there?

00:08:08 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

I think for me, the greatest part of that experience was the people that I met. So I was part of a an international class of students who were there to study for a Masters degree. There were about 120 of us from all parts of the world, I was one of the very youngest because it's not the tradition in other countries to send your newly graduated students to do this kind of course, many, many of the lawyers who were there were people who'd practiced for many years in their own jurisdictions and what it taught me was that I come from a very small jurisdiction and I come from a very small pond and a very large world and that there are some very impressive people around the world from whom you can learn an awful lot.

00:08:54 David Lee, Host

So, you came to Brodies in 2000, and another landmark along the way 20 years ago in 2003, you were named Rising Star of the year at the Scottish Legal Awards. What do you remember about that accolade quite early on in your career?

00:09:12 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

My goodness, you've been doing your research, haven't you David? We're back into ancient history now. I remember that I felt very lucky because that award was the result of colleagues at Brodies having nominated me for that award and it was one of the first examples, and by no means the last, of colleagues here making a difference to me. It was a lovely occasion and it was a nice award to win, but it had as much, if not more, to do with the people nominating me than it did have to do with me.

00:09:46 David Lee, Host

You certainly wear a rising star. It's only 10 years later that you did actually become chair of Brodies in 2013. Tell us a little bit about the role as chair and again, I'm always quite interested in these questions of what you anticipated before you did it? Obviously you’d been in the firm for a while, and how you made the role your own. How much did the role of chair? How much was the role of chair fixed and how much was it about how you could deploy your skills best to the benefit of the firm?

00:10:20 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So first and foremost, the role of chair is set out in our LLP agreement and as a good constitutional lawyer, I pay a lot of attention to the constitution of the firm, which is how I see our Members agreement and it's very important to me to always bear in mind what the LLP agreement says about what the Chair should be doing. I obviously have formal responsibilities, I chair our partners meetings, I chair the firm's strategic board meetings, I also have an external ambassadorial role for the firm, and I, and the managing partner are often seen as the external face of the firm, and it's important to me to be aware of that at all times, because when I'm meeting people or talking to people, then they are seeing Brodies and in me and in the way that I behave when I'm doing that. The LLP agreement also asks the chair to exemplify the professional and personal values that are important to the firm, which colleagues will say I do to a greater or lesser extent, no doubt, and I've also got a job in terms of maintaining those standards of conduct amongst our colleagues and to take care of the well-being of colleagues, including our partners. So those are big things to try to achieve and doing that doesn't require a great deal of creativity or a great deal of innovation, in my view, it's thinking about what's needed on a day-to-day basis to support colleagues as we go along. I had a great example, I’ve already mentioned her, in Joyce Cullen, who was chair before I was, and if I can do the job as well as she did it, I will be perfectly satisfied.

00:12:12 David Lee, Host

As you said there, Christine, that is quite a list of responsibilities for the Chair to carry out. You also have your client commitments, which are also quite significant alongside that. So how do you manage those twin roles as a public constitutional lawyer of very high standing and chair of the largest indigenous legal firm in Scotland? How do you manage that? How do you ground yourself? What do you do outside work, if anything, if you have any time to actually ground yourself and manage to get that balance?

00:12:52 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

Being the chair is not a full-time role at Brodies, it's not intended to be, and the intention is that perhaps it will take up around 20% of your working week, on any given day, it might be a little bit more than that, but it is a balance and being a practicing lawyer is really important to me. I enjoy advising clients, I enjoy the work that I do in the law, I enjoy law and I'm perfectly content to spend an afternoon reading cases and legal textbooks, and that may not make me an attractive social partner or friend, but that's something that I quite enjoy so I wouldn't want to leave that behind and I wouldn't want a role that made me leave that behind. The answer to the question about how you manage it is the same answer as to all of these questions, which is help. So I am surrounded by colleagues on the legal and the non-legal side of our business who work sometimes much harder than me and bring help and support to me in delivering both the legal work and the non-legal work that I do.

00:14:14 David Lee, Host

You always seem very calm, Christine, even when asked awkward questions in podcasts. Are the legs going furiously under the surface or have you got to a point where you are just a calm person? You approach things in a very structured way with that team behind you as you've just described.

00:14:32 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

No, I think we all have moments and sometimes daily moments of anxiety and stress, and there are certainly colleagues in the firm who would roll their eyes if I were to suggest that I am unfailingly calm in the face of difficulties, that's absolutely not true. With that being said, what I do have the advantage of now, being quite a lot older, is of experience and having seen things happen in the firm, outside of the firm, to colleagues and while I can still be surprised by the things that people do more often than not, I will have seen something like it before.

00:15:12 David Lee, Host

You touched there on how much you like practising law, Christine. What have been your career highlights? You've done an awful lot, what would you pick out as the highlights of your career?

00:15:24 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

It's very interesting. I've been very, very lucky and I have been involved in a lot of cases that have had a lot of media profile, will appear now in textbooks and in in teaching materials for people who are coming into the law and those have been very exciting and I wouldn't want to diminish those at all. But, the cases that actually stick with me as being important to me are those where I've actually been acting, perhaps for an individual who's been in difficulty and I have felt that I have made a difference to the outcome for them and I can think back to a case I did way back in 2002 or 2003 for a gentleman whose wife had dementia and who was involved in a very difficult situation involving her care. We had a long and protracted dispute about what should happen that was ultimately resolved in a satisfactory way, and that's the sort of case that makes me think ‘yeah that was worth doing’.

00:16:29 David Lee, Host

That's a great example, thank you. Just back to Brodies, Christine, you've been at the firm for over 20 years. You've been chair for 10 years. What's your observations of how Brodies has evolved as a firm and continues to evolve in what is a legal marketplace affected by a lot of very big external factors?

00:16:53 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So as you say, I arrived in 2000, I was a pretty newly qualified lawyer, so I've lived at the firm through a period of really significant growth and development and one of the most, I suppose, substantial aspects of that is change in size and scale and in geography. So we went from being around 150 people in Edinburgh to being now nearly 900 people in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and London and a presence in Brussels and an office in Abu Dhabi so that has been a phenomenal change in the size and scale of the firm. That change in size, as a result, presents an opportunity for greater specialisation among our lawyers, so we're involved in in legal work that in the past simply didn't exist or was in its infancy. So, you can think of energy transition and renewables as being a really good example of that, technology is another obvious example, so the areas of work in which we operate, but also the types of clients for whom we act. I think also, you can say that there has been an evolution in the culture of our firm, although I also think that that can sometimes be a little bit overstated so I am a comprehensive school educated woman from the West of Scotland, I might not have been regarded by the outside world as an obvious candidate for Brodies, indeed, I can think of one recruitment consultant who told me in 2000 that I would never get a job at Brodies, but I have always felt very welcomed, I have always felt included, I have never felt in any way different from colleagues at Brodies, other than that we are all unique and individual people, and I'm conscious that that is not necessarily the experience of every person who has come to Brodies or comes in to a law firm, so I think we are much better now at being much more explicit about an inclusion agenda, and that is an evolution that I think is very valuable.

00:19:08 David Lee, Host

One other thing that's changed quite a lot, Christine, is the growing set of Solicitor Advocates at Brodies. You're a Solicitor Advocate yourself. Just tell us a bit about what that means to become a solicitor advocate and what is driving the growth in the number of solicitor advocates at Brodies?

00:19:25 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So, traditionally, there would be quite a stark distinction between solicitors in practice in Scotland and members of the Faculty of Advocates who are at the bar in Scotland and the main technical difference that existed was that solicitors would not be able to appear in what would be described as the higher courts. So, for me, the Court of Session and the UK Supreme Court. Solicitor Advocates do have that entitlement, they obtain it as a result of going through a course and passing examinations and being admitted in the same way that members of the faculty are admitted as advocates. I suppose what it does for a person like me is it gives me broader opportunities to practice my own advocacy skills and to develop in the areas of law in which I am particularly interested, that's from my perspective, and that's from the lawyers perspective, from the clients perspective our view is that it gives clients a wider choice of representation so in addition to offering clients representation from the bar, we can also offer clients representation from our cohort of solicitor advocates. It’s both the perspective of the lawyer and the perspective of the client which is driving our support for the growth of that group of lawyers within the firm. We've many lawyers who enjoy being in court, who enjoy advocacy work, who enjoy that part of legal practice, and we want to keep them because if they're very good, we'd rather that they wanted to stay with Brodies and did stay with Brodies and we want to give them a career path that they might not have had in the past as a solicitor. We want to be able to say to our clients, here are some of our excellent advocates that we can offer you alongside the options that we can offer you from the bar.

00:21:23 David Lee, Host

Another big change, you touched on this before, technology. That's been obviously very, very rapid change during your time at Brodies and there is so much chat now about artificial intelligence, how do you think artificial intelligence might change the practice of the law?

00:21:42 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

I think all lawyers will have to be aware of and understand how to use artificial intelligence, and we're doing that already in some of the products that our own teams develop to streamline certain types of work, for example in relation to contract drafting and contract management, and I see artificial intelligence as being another tool in the toolbox of lawyers. I don't see it for a moment being something that will replace the need for lawyers, because the two things that I think are essential to good legal services. The first is judgement, and that's the lesson I try to convey to newer lawyers that I work with that what a client gets from you that is extra and added value is your judgement about what you would do in their shoes with all of the legal knowledge that you have. The second thing is relationship. In my experience being a lawyer is at least 50% about having a relationship of trust and confidence with your client and I think artificial intelligence is not capable of replacing that human dimension.

00:22:56 David Lee, Host

You've talked in a couple of ways there, Christine, about how the legal professions changed during your time in it. I just wonder if there are any more general reflections about any other big changes that you've seen during your career and also the whole idea of how people are accessing a career in the law now and how that's changing as well?

00:23:19 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So, to take the last part of that question first, on access, we're very heavily involved in projects that try to encourage school students who maybe don't have a background in law or maybe studying at a school that doesn't have a history of progression to law as I was in in my day at such a school. We're trying to encourage those students and those schools to think about law as an option, not to force people into a legal route, but to think about law as an option and we've done quite a lot to bring those students into our firm to show them what it's like to work in a firm like Brodies and to at least plant that seed in their minds. There is a lot of work going on around how that can be broadened out to provide access to a legal career by routes other than the traditional degree route through, for example, legal apprenticeships and I think those are very important because I think if you have the skills then you should be able to access a career in the legal profession, in a range of different ways. I also, I must include this caveat, have a pretty strong view that something like a legal apprenticeship scheme should not be used as a way to funnel children from less privileged backgrounds away from a university experience, the university experience was a crucial part of my own personal and professional development, and I wouldn't like to see children who came from backgrounds like me or mine not being able to access a university route to the legal profession.

00:24:59 David Lee, Host

Given your own experiences all the way through from someone who was looking at particle physics now to being one of the leading lawyers in Scotland, if somebody does think I quite fancy a career in the law in 2023 or 2024 would you say go for it?

00:25:16 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

Of course I would. I think for me not to say go for it would be an absolute betrayal of the last 25 years and look at all of the options that are available to people coming into law now. You can work for a firm like Brodies, you can work in other types of law firm, you can work in-house, in the public sector and the commercial sector and you can do all of those things in a single career because one of the biggest changes that I think we've all seen in the profession is the idea of joining a firm, as I did, and staying for 25 years is now pretty unusual. Our more junior lawyers want the opportunity to move around, to do different things in their careers and law gives you a perfect platform to do that.

00:26:01 David Lee, Host

You talked earlier on about diversity, Christine, obviously there's still an issue about women in leadership roles in the law that you are still the exception, you followed on from Joyce, Brodies has had a female chair for a very long time, there are more women in leadership roles now, but it's still very much a minority, how do you think things are improving in that respect and in terms of broader diversity and inclusion in law firms in Scotland?

00:26:33 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

So, I think it is changing David, I think that there are far more women in senior leadership roles in law firms in Scotland than there were before, and I completely accept that we're not there yet, we are certainly not there yet when you look at the proportion of women coming in to the profession as a whole, which now vastly outstrips the male cohort coming in at the junior end, I think it will be about time and there are women who will hear this, who say ‘no, no more time’ but I do think time will make a difference. I think that we're now talking about it much more frequently, much more explicitly, and men are talking about it as well as women talking about it, which I think is very important and I would really encourage women to put up their hands and put up your hand and stand for election, put up your hand and offer yourself for a leadership role within your firm, you may succeed, you may not succeed, but you won't know unless you ask.

00:27:40 David Lee, Host

You've touched on this before, Christine, now having been in the law for 23 years. What still really excites you in the morning when you get up? What bit of your job do you really love? Then, the big question, what comes next? What ambitions remain for someone who's already achieved so much in the legal profession?

00:28:02 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

What gets me excited is the opportunity to do something new, something different. Every single day has something different in it, every single day has a legal problem which looks like one that I've looked at before, but isn't quite the same as the one that I've looked at before and I really get excited about those legal problems. I'm also conscious that I am perhaps on the latter stretch of my career as a professional lawyer and so really the thing that I should be focusing on, and I hope I do focus on, is encouraging lawyers into the profession and when they are at the junior end of our profession and getting them excited about the law getting them excited about getting up in the morning to look at these legal problems and find answers for clients.

00:28:58 David Lee, Host

So I guess what you're saying there, Christine, is still for you every day is a school day. There's always something to learn and whether that's particle physics or law, there's always something to learn when you go into work every day.

00:29:11 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

I think I think my particle physics ambitions probably have to be left on the shelf, but otherwise every day is a school day.

00:29:19 David Lee, Host

We’d rule nothing out, Christine. It's a very unexpected career in retirement as a return to an adviser to the Large Hadron Collider project but we shall see. Anyway. Christine, thanks so much for talking to me today.

00:29:33 Christine O'Neill KC, Chair

Thank you, David.

00:29:35 David Lee, Host

You've been listening to Podcasts by Brodies, where some of the country's leading lawyers and special guests share their Enlightened Thinking about the issues and developments impacting on the legal sector and what they mean for organisations, for businesses and for individuals across the various sectors of the UK economy and wider society. If you'd like to hear more, you can subscribe to Podcasts by Brodies on all the main podcast platforms, and for more information and insights, please visit


Christine O'Neill KC

Chair & Partner