- Give us a brief insight into your role?
I’m the founder and senior partner of Stowe Family Law. I head up a team of top legal professionals, including solicitors, forensic accountants and experts in wills, tax, trusts and probate. Because I sit at the top of the firm things have really changed for me. I do advise clients around the country and internationally on specific requests, but no longer have my own client base. I have appointed heads of management and law who have sub-appointments to do the day to day work, so for the first time in years, I can actually relax and... it’s not easy!
My focus has instead been on the strategic growth of my firm and on enhancing the value of the Stowe Family brand, both within the legal profession and to the public and national media.
Now I’m looking at charitable projects and so far this has included helping regenerate an area in Leeds; helping foster children in care in Leeds; provision of a scholarship for a child at GSAL; a partnership with the Leeds Rhinos Charitable Foundation and similar projects in other areas where we have offices. As a rugby league supporter we sponsor the St Albans Centurions. Meanwhile Danny McGuire, the Leeds Rhinos Captain, judged our inter-office Bake Off competition.
I have an award-winning blog, www.marilynstowe.co.uk, which I began speculatively in 2007. It features different areas of family law and now gets approximately 60,000 hits every month. It has a worldwide readership and was named as one of the UK’s top legal blogs by The Times. It has also been labelled one of the top ten family law blogs in the world by DBS Legal in Australia. It now employs two full time journalists and a retired family law solicitor as contributors apart from me. The strap line is “Where family law meets family life” and it’s great to write for and to read as a way of keeping up to date with family law.
I’ve also written three books, including the best-selling Divorce & Splitting Up: Advice From a Top Divorce Lawyer, which is now in its second edition. The book, some 250 pages long, is available for just 99p, the lowest charge possible on Amazon. It is my attempt at a solution to the problems faced by all those people who have been denied legal aid since it was largely abolished in April 2013. It has sold 10,000 copies and all proceeds have gone to the Children’s Society, a charity I have supported for many years.
- Tell us about your career path since finishing at the School of Law?
After graduating in law at Leeds University, I was offered a position by Claudine Levy, then a lecturer in European law at Leeds, as a lecturer in English law at the Universite du Mans in France under a reciprocal arrangement between the two universities. I was the first graduate to go over to Le Mans and I had a great year lecturing French students about a common law legal system that was completely alien to them.
I then went on to study at Chester College of Law and qualified as a solicitor. The roots of Stowe Family Law as it is now known were put down in 1982 from very humble beginnings in the backroom of a converted cobblers shop in Halton, East Leeds, where I worked with a single secretary/receptionist and about four or five legal aid clients from the Citizens Advice Bureau in Chapeltown where I had worked pro bono.
I was only in my 20s but I began to develop a reputation as a female lawyer who helped abused women. There were very few female lawyers around at the time. I used to take my clients to the magistrates court and could get an ouster injunction ex parte – i.e. without the husband knowing what was happening, with a power of arrest for good measure, if he didn’t vacate. Then sometimes I served the injunction myself, for example by going into the local pub opposite my office if I’d been was told I could find the husband. You can’t get an order like that now!
My husband and I took a deep breath and secured a second mortgage on our house to pay for the Halton office and I set myself the task of paying it off as fast as I could. I worked on getting one new client a day. The bank manager visited me weekly to check how I was doing and I was sure it was because I was a woman. At that time all my friends had followed the norm, they were married and had children. I didn’t fit the pattern. I paid off the borrowings in 18 months and then for the one and only time, I changed banks.
Gradually I became known as ‘The Barracuda’, a nickname given by a client’s husband that made me laugh. But I really had to be tough to succeed in a man’s world where fees were still charged by many firms in guineas (not me) and it was very hard to be accepted. It wasn’t pleasant. I think I never was accepted in a world of lawyers who went to gentlemen’s clubs. I had no one but myself to rely upon in my office. However, somehow, my reputation began to grow and some people who were literally household names came from all over the country to instruct me in my tiny office in Halton. I remember one lady with a very famous surname being shocked that I hadn’t guessed who her husband was. I was shocked as well, but for a different reason - I was shocked she was instructing me at all when she had the choice of every firm in London.
I also attracted heads of international law and accountancy firms who initially came to conflict me out; members of the judiciary; directors of publicly quoted companies; and even members of the aristocracy. I had no posh London contacts, no Central London firm with a huge reputation to open the right doors for me. I wasn’t on first name terms with the big hitters in family law – far from it. Instead I was sitting there in east Leeds in the most basic of surroundings, working seven days a week to build up my firm. The arrival of a fax machine caused consternation in the office. I was thrilled with it.
I was also a working mum with a young baby. There was no information technology back then, no internet, no email and no computers allowing easy work from home, so pre-nursery I used to take my son into work with me in his pram, with a carrycot and all the paraphernalia a baby needs. Later, during school holidays he came to work as well if I couldn’t arrange help.
Eventually I attracted a selection of equally committed lawyers to Halton to work with me, by now in three storey purpose-built premises along the parade which I never thought we would fill. I had major surgery in 1992 and took two weeks off work instead of the recommended 12. My firm and my clients meant everything to me, even though when recuperating I could hardly walk and couldn’t drive. In 1995 one of my clients paid to send me to New York for a case, I flew on Concorde which was an amazing thrill and saw how US lawyers operate in Manhattan.
I was appointed as the first Chief Assessor and Chief Examiner of the Family Law Panel by the Law Society in 1998, when my assistant solicitor suggested I apply, and then I was appointed Chief Assessor and Chief Examiner of the Advanced Tier of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel in 2001. I had to help devise and apply quality standards for family lawyers across the country who sought accreditation. I negotiated with the Legal Aid Board, and other professional bodies. I recommended 48 of my peers to work with me as assessors and I arranged national conferences deliberately in the North to demonstrate there was much legal life outside London, which attracted government and shadow ministers, judges and others in the family system to speak and attend. I interviewed literally thousands of applicant lawyers, testing them on standards. When I retired in 2006 the LSFLP had the largest membership panel in the Law Society.
I also found time, working pro bono in my spare time, to obtain the evidence from a hospital that freed fellow solicitor Sally Clark from a double murder conviction for the death of her infant children. I never believed she had murdered them. Following her trial in the press, where the medical and statistical evidence was pivotal, I thought she might succeed in her appeal, but the judges simply confirmed her guilt. At that point I got involved. Her second, successful, appeal to the Court of Appeal relied entirely on the evidence I obtained. Again I obtained it simply through being determined and focussed. If she hadn’t killed her children what did? I eventually obtained a blood test report showing that the second baby had a form of meningitis that was not disclosed at the trial and clearly should have been. If it had, I’m sure she would never have been convicted. Following her release, there was a major change in the treatment of expert witnesses in criminal and civil cases.
In 2007 I was invited to become a member of the Legal Advisory Group to the Law Commission in relation to a potential change in the law on cohabitation. I handled the media enquiries when the report was published. I am a strong supporter of new legislation to deal with a major gap in the law. Marriage is in decline, cohabitation is too easy for the wealthier party to walk away from scot free. There should be a levelling out as there is in Scotland, where the law looks at any economic imbalance caused by a cohabitation- but does not, of course, equate a cohabitation settlement with divorce.
In 2012 I was one of the first 35 solicitors, barristers and ex-judges to qualify as a family law arbitrator and I became a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb).
Also In 2012 I became a member of the Legal Advisory Group to the Law Commission regarding matrimonial property and potential changes in the law relating to financial settlements and nuptial agreements. I am not a supporter of nuptial agreements, because I think there is usually a power imbalance and feelings change. But I understand the desire of some people for autonomy.
I was the first female solicitor outside London to be elected a Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers: a worldwide association of practicing lawyers who are recognised by their peers as the most expert and experienced family lawyers of their respective countries. Membership to the IAFL is by invitation only.
In 2008 when the recession was under way and law firms were clearly in the doldrums, I decided to buck the trend and started opening offices across the country. I could see an opening for a family law firm offering excellent advice at very reasonable fees. So far we have opened ten offices nationally, always completely blind without work or clients, and we are now the largest family law firm in the country, with an established brand and plans to increase our reach still further with several new offices, because we have developed such a successful model.
Two thirds of the lawyers in the firm are women, a fact of which I’m particularly proud. They know nothing of the struggles I had over the first 20 years of my career I’m pleased to say, and we embrace maternity, which is pretty regular occurrence in each office, taking on new lawyers to cover for our new Mums as a means of growth.
I’ve also become a public commentator on family law matters – a far cry from the 1980s when solicitors were not even permitted to advertise! These strictures were relaxed in the 90s and today I am regularly sought out by national broadcast and print media to comment on new cases in the media, including the BBC, ITV, Sky News, The Times and The Telegraph.
I invented a storyline about shady financial dealings for The Archers, and also advised on a storyline involving a dispute between parent and grandparent for Coronation Street. The latter case was especially gratifying because I managed to persuade the producers to avoid the usual big courtroom confrontation scene and instead show an out-of-court resolution to the issue. For 18 months I had a regular Q&A session on ITV’s This Morning show. I don’t employ PR and secured my slot on This Morning because the producer came from Leeds.
- What have been the highlights so far?
I’ve had a terrific career, and 34 years later I am widely considered one of the top family lawyers in the country. My firm deals with clients nationally and internationally and I was described as “one of the most formidable and sought-after divorce lawyers in the UK” by The Times
The highlight for me though is this simple fact: I have achieved it myself. I have had to fight hard to make a name for my firm and develop it, from incredibly modest beginnings in Yorkshire. No doors ever magically opened for me, no golden opportunities presented themselves in top flight London law firms.
I visit our offices and sometimes can’t believe it’s got anything to do with that young Mum who worked in Halton, and that is sometimes how I still see myself. I walked around Winchester recently and saw the office on the High Street and was just amazed how we could be down near the South Coast doing so well. Then there is our central London office, which opened in 2012 and is now crammed full of lawyers. I have a balcony which looks out over Gray’s Inn Gardens. I joined Gray’s Inn as a student at Leeds University when I planned to become a barrister. But my perspectives changed and I became a solicitor instead. It’s strange to find myself here now, in a place I never thought I’d be.
- How did you find studying at the School?
It was great. I love Leeds as a city. It’s my home. It’s inclusive and diverse and the three years I spent at the University studying law were some of the best years of my life. I made some good friends, some of whom I’m still in touch with, even though they’re in different countries. The inclusiveness of Leeds is really demonstrated by the people from all around the world who studied there. I made friends with people from places as far flung as South America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
But it wasn’t all socialising! I do have to thank Dr Latham Brown for giving me the opportunity to study law at the university in the first place. I have many fond memories of our lives at the university, wandering from the Law Faculty at Lyddon Terrace to the Student Union building; attending lectures given by the late great Professor Hogan, Professor James, Claudine Levy, John Tinnion, Howard Davies, (Lord) Colin Low, John Prophet, Mavis Roberts and Maggie Richards to name just a few; visiting my friends at their respective Halls of Residence. We lived more or less in a cocoon. It was, as I now recognise, a great privilege.
- Why did you want to study Law?
My parents inspired me to go into law. They struggled to provide my siblings and me with a great education. I still have a drawing from when I was about seven showing me in a wig and gown and underneath the words ‘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.’ In the end I decided that becoming a solicitor would suit me better and since then, I truly haven’t looked back.
- If you would give any advice to students what would it be?
Money is not the driver for a career in law. You must really love what you do. And ethically, always hold your head up high. Do what you know is right and don’t cut corners whatever the provocation and no matter who asks you to do so, because your reputation is everything. If you follow that code, you won’t go far wrong. Thats’s the timeless advice Lord Denning MR gave me at my admissions ceremony and I’ve always lived by it. Now I’ve passed it on to my son Ben who’s a first class hons law graduate of Leeds University himself and now a solicitor at a city firm in London.
- What do you like doing when you’re not working?
I’m a runner and I’m passionate about Yorkshire, so my ideal downtime is to be out running in the beautiful Yorkshire landscape. A 10 km run is my idea of fun.
- What are you most looking forward to in your future career?
My number one ambition is to see my firm continue to grow, maintain and expand its reputation across the country, helping people through tough times in their lives, with exactly the same unchanged ethos I had when it all began in 1982.