Gary O’Reilly is highly engaging company, a straight-talking Northern Irishman with a penchant for pithy turns of phrase – and colourful quotes…..
“I didn’t get it easy, I worked hard to get where I am…..I will talk to a £2,000 a day QC in the same way that I would talk to a colleague on the building site…..
“I wanted to work for myself. I do not like working for others. I hate being told that someone owns you from 9 to 5.
“I am not a fan of corporate hierarchies….they are too rigid and regimented.
“Brexit has been very beneficial to me…and Covid has been a pain in the back end……”
In his highly detailed CV, Gary describes himself as a ‘legal professional with outstanding business acumen….with strong knowledge of commercial matters, data protection, regulatory public law and corporate governance.’ It’s a persuasive combination of words, but it doesn’t reveal the human story behind Gary O’Reilly, the man who left his five brothers behind in his native Northern Ireland to ultimately carve out a legal niche for himself in Middle England.
That story involves a varied business career which has taken Gary from building sites in Dublin to life as a serious fraud solicitor, a stint with the Royal College of Nursing defending nurses facing disciplinary problems and a subsequent switch to the highly complex world of data protection, where he today finds himself as a legal expert running his own firm specialising in advice to large corporates and tiny start-ups alike.
It’s been a long and winding road from his upbringing in Keady in County Armagh, where he grew up as one of a family of six boys at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, long before Tony Blair’s Good Friday agreement in 1998.
“I went to the local grammar school and then to university in Jordanstown, near Belfast. I chased women and drank beer, I didn’t last….I was a bit of a home boy. It wasn’t a pleasant environment, you were constantly looking over your shoulder because of the troubles.
“My mum would not allow me to lie around the house so I was sent out to work on building sites….I was in my early 20s. I ended up working in Dublin…there was building going up everywhere, the days of the Celtic Tiger, no shortage of work…really well-paid, cash in hand. It was hard, physical work but I was a young man, really up for it.”
But labouring on building sites was never going to be a lifelong option for Gary, and he decided to take out a loan to study for a Law Degree at Portobello College in Dublin – with a little help from two mentors.
“I went to college four days a week and then for two days – Fridays and Saturdays – I was working on building sites. In years two and three, I was very fortunate. There was an old rich Yank with Irish roots who was vice-president of IBM in America, Steven WFitzgerald. He wanted to set up an educational fund to help under-privileged kids with their education and I was the first recipient of that.
“I had an interview with Steven, who flew over. He liked what he saw, I would have been 29. He paid for my fees in years two and three and gave me a monthly allowance to help me through my studies. I fell on my feet.”
Along with Steven Fitzgerald, Gary, 47, is also forever grateful to Una Finn, the Head of Administration at the college who told him about the educational fund. “They saw something in me and liked what they saw, they had such an impact on my life. In 2001, Steven flew over for my graduation ceremony and Una was there too, it was lovely.”
Gary was on the path to fulfilling his legal ambitions and undertook a legal practice course at Leeds Metropolitan University. “You have done your law degree, now you have to put that into practice, mock trials, completing claim forms…it was very intensive.”
Equally intensive was the competition for trainee solicitor roles. “The problem with trainee solicitors is that beggars can’t be choosers. There are more trainees than there are jobs. I sent out 120 applications all over the UK, and none of them came good.”
But salvation was near at hand when Gary landed a paralegal role working on major fraud cases with Leeds-based criminal law firm O’Garra’s, where he worked for three years, eventually qualifying as a solicitor in 2005with the help of his mentors Tracey Holmes and Sean Smith.
“I learnt all the ropes of the job, they taught me and taught me well. I enjoyed it because I can relate to the man on the street, people’s problems. It is my key asset. There is nothing of the fat cat lawyer about me.
“I come from a sheltered background, I had no experience of drugs, heroin addiction, it gave me an insight into another world. I was sorry to leave 0’Garra’s but they couldn’t match the money.”
That money had been offered by national law firm Irwin Mitchell, where he took on a role as a serious fraud solicitor in Leeds and Manchester, but the extra financial incentive came at a price. “The difference was unbelievable, a lot of clients were paying privately, they got Rolls-Royce treatment.
“I was dealing with high-profile cases such as the horse-racing corruption case, I did bail applications, lots of preliminary hearings and was having to absorb vast amounts of evidence very quickly, I thought I would try to get into a less stressful area of law but still use my negotiation and advocacy skills and took a quasi-criminal role with the Royal College of Nursing.
“I represented nurses who came before the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Nursing is very stressful, there are lots of horrors and sad stories. The RCN was a lovely job but I left because I had had enough of health care regulation. I wanted to diversify into something which would reignite my career. I feared becoming too deskilled, a one-track pony, and felt that I wanted a fresh challenge.”
That fresh challenge proved to be Data Protection, and he undertook training at his own expense to immerse himself in an entirely new sector of the legal world, which would sow the seeds for today’s one-man data protection and legal consultancy venture run from the family home in Evesham, SME Comply Ltd.
“The data protection landscape changes very quickly and you learn how to absorb large amounts of information very quickly.”
From September 2017 to July 2019 he worked as a Privacy/GDPR solicitor with Birmingham City Council preparing organisations for the General Data Protection Regulation rolled out in 2018. “It is about protecting individuals’ rights and gaining the trust of individuals to use their personal data fairly and responsibly, what an organisation can do with personal data. It was about getting them up to speed with GDPR.
“I often start my consultation with a new client by asking ‘who owns the personal data on your customer list?’ Often I get the answer ‘the business does.’ Not to me they don’t, to me the individual owns the data, and they are entrusting the company with it for whatever purpose that may be. That often gets the clients thinking differently, and in my view correctly.
“I went to Birmingham City Council for experience, it was never going to be a long-term thing, it was all part of the plan. I wanted to work for myself, I do not like working for others. I was stuck in traffic every day, doing a lot of commuting.”
The O’Reilly plan to shake off the shackles of corporate life and branch out on his own finally came to fruition with the launch of SME Comply. “I had been running a website, putting things together, data protection and legal work.
“I was also finalising my MBA, which gave me a great business foundation. I undertook the MBA for my own personal development, at my own cost. I thought it would also be a good USP as the majority of lawyers don’t have business experience.
“My clients not only get a lawyer, they also get a business consultant, who can advise on marketing or strategy. They like that.
“Behind the scenes, I had been making business contacts, people needing Data Protection advice on a private basis. It was sheer perseverance on my part, I would put up blog posts and a few different companies would pick up on them.
“I had three or four good SMEs. I was able to offer them legal as well as data protection advice. But just as I was getting a steady income, Covid struck. It sunk me, people did not have the money to spend on Data Protection. I lost most of my retained contracts.”
Not for the first time in a rollercoaster career, Gary chose to reinvent himself once again – with the crucial help of wife Sarah, a pathologist at Worcester Royal Hospital. “My wife was working throughout Covid, and was able to provide for us…she was the main breadwinner at that point.
“I looked after the children, I was a stay at home dad, I found it very rewarding, I would not have changed it for the world, I loved every minute. I have become a great cook and the kids will never forget it.”
Whilst SME Comply is still in its infancy, Gary is encouraged by his progress, Covid notwithstanding. “Things have picked up, my clients vary, some of them are very well-established, some are start-ups. I have clients in the UKand four overseas in Switzerland, America, two in Ireland. My services vary for each. I can act as outsourced counsel, Data Protection Officer (DPO) or EU and UK representative from my UK and Irish offices.
“GDPR has become worldwide. If you know GDPR, the world is your oyster, many other countries are introducing data protection laws and using GDPR as their model. In the morning, I have had to do a webinar to a business group in Australia on GDPR compliance post-Brexit and then I can have calls to a law firm in the Silicon Slopes of Utah from 8pm to 10pm. With technological advances the world is a lot smaller.
“When you are dealing with law all the time, it can sometimes be quite boring. I have got an MBA, I can offer advice on strategy, I love getting stuck into business problems and business issues. I am always thinking business, I am always thinking if something can become better. I can offer companies legal services, Data Protection services and business consultancy services, three consultants for the price of one.”
So far, so good for SME Comply. Gary says he has big plans for expansion, including offering international companies a one-stop shop for all legal and regulatory advice on trading in the UK post-Brexit, and for UK companies who now have to comply with the red tape of trading in the EU.
“For example, the need for an EU representative if a UK business offers goods or services to EU based individuals. Very few companies know about this ‘hidden obligation’ but non-compliance can lead to a hefty fine and damage to reputation.”
Gary is conscious that he owes an overwhelming debt to his wife Sarah. “I want to get to the stage where I can return the favour to Sarah, where she can work less and I can come to the fore. I have come to the stage in life where family comes first. Money will return to you, time won’t.”
Nevertheless, family duties notwithstanding, Gary sees today’s legal environment as a potentially profitable area to pursue. “There is a lot more choice out there, consumerism is a word I like to use, people are not stupid, they know their rights, I feel that very few lawyers can hide behind a veil of £500 an hour any more. My fees are affordable and agreed in advance, so there are no large legal bills coming through the letterbox.
“I want to build this business. I want to get to a point where I can afford a retreat on the West Coast of Ireland, in Donegal, Sligo or Galway. The beautiful thing is that with advances in technology and the remote nature of my work I can work anywhere with my laptop.”