As featured in the Belfast Telegraph & Sunday Life, read how JMK Solicitors Chairman, Jonathan McKeown became a Personal Injury Solicitor.
The post: Chairman, JMK Solicitors
The post holder: Jonathan McKeown
Give a brief outline of your career to date.
Whilst studying for a law degree part-time, I worked in what was then my father’s business CRASH Services, Northern Ireland’s leading car accident management company. I then moved into an apprenticeship with a local solicitor’s firm in Newry and an assistant solicitor role for two years at a firm in Antrim. I set up my own practice in October 2003 and incorporated as JMK Solicitors in 2011. The business went through a series of ups and downs since it was established but is now firmly placed as the leading road traffic accident and personal injury practice in Northern Ireland with around 25 solicitors in the firm. In 2015 I bought CRASH from my father Michael.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I had the good fortune to have been taught by great teachers throughout my entire education, so I didn’t have any subjects that I didn’t like and picking a favourite is actually quite difficult. I would say Maths was one of my better subjects because it was one of those classes where there was a wrong and a right answer and it was easier to see progression.
Did you go on to further/higher education, if so what did you study and where?
I graduated from QUB in 1995 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and not knowing what I wanted to do at that time went on a one year Training and Employment Agency programme to study Business Administration at Sheldon Jackson College, Sitka, Alaska. Whilst there I decided to pursue a legal career and enrolled back in QUB for a postgraduate law degree from 1996-1999. From there I went on qualify as a Solicitor via the Institute of Professional Legal Studies(IPLS), also at Queen’s until 2001.
How did you get into your area of work?
Through the experience and in-depth knowledge of car accident claims that I developed while working for CRASH, I was in a situation where I knew the law on the subject extremely well. That was a great grounding for being a specialised legal practitioner, especially as the solicitor’s training course was very general on the area of motor insurance. We made mistakes in CRASH in relation to drafting of our customer agreements for example and I learned a lot whilst sorting that out over several years.
Is this what you always wanted to do?
No, obviously initially I thought I would have done something in aviation but then during solicitor qualifying, I always saw myself as going to be a Corporate Legal Advisor dealing with mergers and acquisitions for example. I was unsuccessful in applying for positions at two of the leading commercial firms, Tughans and A&L Goodbody. I even applied for a job as a Contracts Manager at the BBC.
Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?
I needed the post-graduate Bachelor of Legal Science Degree and to get into the IPLS which involved an entrance examination. I think I performed well in the exam because I had a couple of years of practical work experience under my belt by that time.
Are there alternative routes into the job?
You can apply to the IPLS if you have significant experience working in a legal practice but it can take many years to build that up and you may still need to undertake legal education whilst working.
What are the main personal skills your job requires?
You have to be able to gain trust from the first meeting with someone so being genuinely interested in people is essential. A solicitor’s job is a classic example of a catch-22 – it helps to be really inquisitive and to be constantly wanting to learn new things but often you cannot tell anyone what you know! Being able to laugh, whether internally or externally depending on the situation, even in the face of what looks like a major error is also very useful!
What does a typical day entail?
As the practice has moved on I do not handle individual client files anymore. My role involves being aware of legal issues that are arising in our field on a national level and ensuring that we are best prepared for dealing with them to the advantage of our clients.
What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?
The best thing is finding and solving a problem, there are no shortages of clients with complex issues and there is a lot of excitement to be experienced getting an answer to whatever the current quandary is. The challenging aspect is that you might not know if your solution was correct for weeks or months down the line depending on the nature of the matter.
Why is what you do important?
Our clients are in a classic David v Goliath battle with the insurance industry which tries to undermine them using every tool at their disposal. JMK is the slingshot that ensures the injured party gets what they deserve and the playing field is levelled.
What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?
Owning your own business often seems like the greatest achievement you can have in work but it brings with it different problems and responsibilities. Whilst you have to believe in yourself to be successful in what you do, you cannot fall into the trap of ‘believing your own hype’, you have to always want to learn and to be able to accept that you might not be right. One of my closest confidants said to me once that they thought I wouldn’t be happy unless I was apologising for something I had done wrong. For me, taking responsibility and making sure you work to do better keeps you grounded and focused on the end result.
If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?
Not coming from a Criminal Law background it may seem odd but I would like to work for an organisation like The Innocence Project, helping to look at potential miscarriages of justice. I think that’s because I think that I can see things that others sometimes miss and that I would be good at working through the details of these types of cases.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?
Build relationships with as many people as possible and ask as many questions as you need to figure out what is expected of you and how to add value to the company and its clients.
Describe your ideal day off.
A day reading legal thrillers… on a long train journey – with wine.
And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?
I would say it’s to be open-minded about opportunities, no one really knows from the outside what a particular job or employer is going to be like so you have to think about the future possibilities not what the job is but what it is going to be.