A recent invitation to contribute a career profile to the Leeds University website brought back more than a few memories.
Leeds University is my alma mater – a Latin term which, roughly translated, means ‘foster mother’. Once a religious title, people have been using this vivid phrase to evoke a nostalgic glow for their university – and sometimes school –for centuries now.
As regular readers of this blog will know, Leeds itself is very much my home. It’s a richly diverse city and the three years I spent there as a law student were some of the most memorable of my life. I often think back to those days, wandering from the Law Faculty to the Student Union building; attending lectures given by all the accomplished law professors; dropping by to see my friends in the halls of residence. It was a golden time. One night in particular stands out – standing freezing outside the Union building listening to my hero Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music inside because I couldn’t get a ticket.
I am still in touch with many of those friends today, even though some now live in different countries. People came from all around the world to study law at Leeds – I was lucky enough to meet students from as far afield as South America, Asia, Africa and even the Caribbean. Recently I bumped into one of my friends who still lives in the area. He hasn’t changed. He was a little bit stuffy then and ..still is now. But the long haired hippy Nick Witchell? Er…what happened to him?
Studying at Leeds meant, of course, that I was relatively close to home. My parents had originally inspired me to go into law, having previously worked tirelessly to ensure my siblings and I enjoyed a good education. I still have a drawing I made when I was about seven showing me in a wig and gown with the inscription ‘When I grow up I’m going to be a barrister and my daddy is going to stand on the highest church in Leeds and shout ‘My Marilyn’s a barrister.’
Yes, that was my original plan – to become a barrister. But after a little work experience I realised the role didn’t really suit me. It was much too theatrical and was not especially family-friendly either. So I took what is not generally known, the longer route to qualification as a lawyer – I became a solicitor and the rest is history.
After graduation I spent a year in France lecturing French law students on the peculiarities of the English legal system. I still remember much of the French I picked up during those 12 months. Then it was on to Chester College of Law to qualify as a solicitor.
Stowe Family Law, as it is now known, began way back in 1982 in the humble backroom of a converted cobblers shop in Halton, Leeds. I set up shop there with a single secretary who doubled as a receptionist. I had four or five legal aid clients from the nearby Citizens Advice Bureau and it all took off from there. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I’d return from lunch and find the secretary had walked out, unable to cope with all the work I had to do. Those days trying to manage everything were very stressful. There was no one to do any of the jobs we all take for granted now in a modern firm. Billing, credit control, client care, regulation: all of it had to be done, as well as the legal work, by the one lawyer in the office – me.
As one of the very few female lawyers around at the time, I began to develop something of a reputation as a domestic violence specialist. I would take these clients – almost always women at the time – to the magistrates court and could get an ‘ouster injunction’ ex parte – i.e. without the husband having any idea. This even came with a power of arrest for good measure, if he didn’t leave the property pronto. You couldn’t get one of those now! I sometimes even served the injunction myself if I had a good idea where to find the husband – usually the pub across the road. I’d walk in smile and when he confirmed who he was I’d say sweetly “these are for you” and then literally run for cover as fast as I could.
My husband I had managed to secure a second mortgage to pay for the office in Halton but the bank manager remained suspicious, coming to check on my progress every week – no doubt for no reason other than the fact that I was a woman. I managed to pay off the debt in just 18 months and immediately moved to a different bank.
One day I was dubbed The Barracuda by the husband of a client, and I had a good laugh about that. But the truth was that I did need a thick skin to make my way in what was still very much a man’s world. Acceptance wasn’t easy in a world of lawyers who went to gentleman’s clubs. It would have been far better had I the comfort of an existing practice, a firm’s reputation, colleagues to open doors for me.
But things gradually began to snowball and my reputation spread. People travelled from all over the country to instruct me, including some very wealthy and prestigious people. I remained up here in a suburb of Leeds, working seven days a week to make it all happen and they came to Halton and instructed me. Some days things got more hectic. My son Ben used to come into work with me if I couldn’t arrange a babysitter. More often he would be scooped up by one of his aunts and come back telling me what great food he’d had.
By the 1990s however, we had grown, moved into a larger building and attracted good lawyers keen to do the work. I was also an active member of the Law Society, appointed to an influential panel to advise on regulatory change. Meanwhile, I and my growing band of lawyers were instructed in international cases.
I am still proud of the fact that I also helped fellow solicitor Sally Clark clear her name after she had been jailed for life for the alleged murder of her infant children. In my spare time, and pro bono, I managed to secure crucial medical evidence that, scandalously, had not previously been disclosed. What a truly tragic case that was – but it created huge waves in cot death cases and also in the treatment of expert witnesses in the civil and criminal courts.
Fast forward and by 2012, as Stowe Family Law continued its healthy growth, I became one of the first 35 lawyers and former judges to qualify as a family law arbitrator. I also became the first female solicitor outside London to be invited to join the International Academy of Family Lawyers.
By that point, we had already moved into the beautiful Old Court House in Harrogate and begun to open a sequence of other new offices in different locations around the country, a deliberate decision made to buck the economic trend and thus we escaped the financial downturn. The public votes with its feet I thought. Give them good service and reasonable fees and it will succeed. I am pleased to say it worked: we are now the largest family law firm in the country.
I have also not been a stranger to the media, making regular appearances on national TV and radio to discuss family law matters. For 18 months I made regular appearances on ITV This Morning and I contributed storylines to both Coronation Street and The Archers.
Long distance running became a lifesaver to me in my mid 30s. I used to run at least three times a week and it kept me focused. I was able to get out and relax. I would enter half marathons fairly regularly. My favourite distance was a ten mile race around the Harewood countryside. Unfortunately it also had an impact on my knee and after a recent second arthroscopy I’m still hoping for a come back!
Instead, whilst recuperating I tour round our offices regularly with my eagle eye, sometimes unannounced, seeing shock when people realise it’s their turn today. We run nine offices now, with more to come. But I still have moments when I really cannot believe it all. Time has passed by in a flash since I was that young Mum labouring away in a back office in Halton, racing to collect a little boy from school. Then I look in the mirror and realise, with a bit of a wry smile, how many years ago it really was and just how much has happened since. I don’t regret a day of it though, no matter how tough it’s been. There have been some great times and some bad times. But life experience is what turns you into the person you eventually become.
The past has a way of returning in curious ways. Back when I still planned to become a barrister I joined Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in central London to which all English barristers belong. Then, as mentioned above, my plans changed. But now we have an office in London and my balcony overlooks….Gray’s Inn Gardens.
How strange it is to find myself there sometimes, looking down on a location I thought I’d never be.