And, readers, we’re back with another Jobs for the Girls. This is one of my favourite series on the blog. It gives us a chance to get behind what makes women choose the fascinating careers they choose, what drives them, what the job involves, and aims to either inspire you to try a different career path or, indeed, satisfy your curiosity about what exactly people in different careers DO all day.
When Yanthé emailed me offering to spill all about her career as a family lawyer, she said “Often when I tell people I’m a family lawyer they recoil in horror like I must be the devil, but sadly we are necessary (and not evil!) and I would quite like the chance to explain it. People assume we must be cynical and you wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve had people tell me they’re sure I never want to get married. Actually I’m a big romantic, regularly mocked for my belief that the Beckham’s really are very much in love and do hope to be married one day!”
And immediately I wanted to know more. It can’t be easy being in a job where people immediately form an opinion about who you are and what you stand for. How did Yanthé get into being a lawyer? Her path is not the path I expected:
“I never had any ambition to be a lawyer. Never; the thought hadn’t ever even crossed my mind, but then my own family broke-down mid GCSE exams and we went through a pretty rough time. My results were still really good but by the time I was half way through my A-levels it was clear that, both emotionally and financially, university wasn’t going to be an option for me then. So I left school at 17 and needed to get a job, which turned out to be a trainee legal secretary in a local law firm. I actually began that role officially undertaking an NVQ in business administration but after a couple of months the firm said they would support me through the training to become a Legal Executive. Prior to joining the firm I hadn’t even heard of Legal Executives and many people outside of the legal profession still haven’t. Along with Solicitors and Barristers we are a third branch of the legal profession. My official title is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. Practising Fellows specialise in a specific area of law and the work we do is very similar to that of a Solicitor in our chosen specialist field.”
And what kind of training does it take to become a Legal Executive? How does approaching the legal profession in this way differ from traditional degrees and law conversion courses? Is there prejudice in what is still a “traditional” field? “It took five years of full time work in a law firm and part time study alongside that to pass the necessary exams plus another two years after that of working as a lawyer before I was awarded Fellowship. My qualification is degree level, I have conduct of my caseload and can appear in court before District Judges. Legal Executives have the option of cross-qualifying as a Solicitor if they so wish, but the status of Fellows of CIlex has been progressed greatly in recent years; changes have allowed us to become Partners in law firms and just last year the first Legal Executive was appointed as a Judge. The nature of the qualification means that by the time Fellowship is attained, Legal Executives have already been working on cases for a number of years. I was conducting casework under supervision for some time before I qualified and thanks to the firm I trained with I already had a wealth of experience which has served me well in dealing with the cases I have worked on so far and I do not doubt I will continue to put it to good use in the future.”
Notwithstanding American legal dramas, what does a family lawyer do all day? According to Yanthé, a typical day can include telephone calls or meetings with clients, corresponding and negotiating with other lawyers, drafting documents such as court applications or statements and liaising with the courts. Yanthé says this “can be frustrating as the court system is very over-subscribed and under-staffed. On more of a weekly basis I need to fit in file management, so making sure my files are compliant with procedures, keeping up to date with legal news and updates as well as networking with other professionals or new clients.”
And how much of that time is spent in court? With family law, I assume you try to avoid a drawn-out legal process? “Despite the general perception of divorce lawyers, we don’t actually spend a great deal of time in court. Throughout every case I take on, I consider with my client whether a mediation service could help to resolve the issues. The majority of our cases settle without going to court, or after just one hearing. The court process serves its purpose in focusing the parties’ minds on deadlines and on requiring certain evidential disclosures that may not be forthcoming voluntarily, but for most of our cases it is not necessary.
However, there are always cases in which the parties are so polarised in their views that the only way to resolve the issues is for a judge to decide having heard all the evidence, but litigation is a risk. Once a case is in the hands of the court the parties don’t always have full control over the outcome, although family courts encourage parties to settle at all possible points up to trial and even during in some circumstances. So far this year only two of my cases have required a contested final hearing and they involved difficult issues or parties who were unwilling to negotiate.
Every family is different and every case I deal with involves different issues and sticking points. It is very difficult to shock me, I’m sure I haven’t heard it all just yet, but wouldn’t be surprised if I was coming close!”
And Yanthé’s advice is overwhelmingly the following: “I cannot recommend highly enough that anyone involved in a family law dispute checks their legal position, but that does not mean they need to engage a lawyer to talk to their ex-partner for them! Lawyers are expensive and should not be used as go-betweens unless there really is no other option. “
I can’t even begin to imagine some of the issues that Yanthé has to hear about on a daily basis. How does she cope? How does she avoid taking the issues home with her, and how does she learn to tackle the sensitivities and history that are so entwined in a family,and unpick them?: “Family law covers many issues and which of those issues you come across more often can depend on the demographic you’re working in. It would be disingenuous of me to say I never come across an issue which really upsets me, but handling sensitive cases becomes easier with experience. Ultimately I strive to help the families I work with and hope that is what I achieve, but more often than not there is no ideal outcome. Really in family law neither party should come away feeling as though they’ve won, because that would be the wrong result.
I cannot deny there have been days when I’ve arrived home from work emotionally drained and dealing with fractious parties can definitely be straining but receiving a genuine thank you from a client at the end of a case makes all of that worthwhile. I support my clients through one of the most challenging periods of their lives; they can be (understandably) very emotional and frustrated and sometimes those emotions are directed at me. I’ve developed a pretty tough skin, it takes a lot to upset me but I’d much rather my clients vented their frustrations at me than at their ex-partner or even worse in front of their children.
A stand out point from my career so far came not long before I made the move to my current firm around three and a half years ago. I had been acting for a client who along with her children had experienced severe domestic violence and helped her, in conjunction with the wonderful Women’s Aid, in to a refuge and eventually in to a new home with the children and the protection of a court order which meant her abusive ex-husband could not reach them. After I had broken the news to her that I was going to be moving away and that a very capable colleague would be taking over her case, she sent me a lovely card thanking me for everything I had done; she wrote that I could never know how much I had helped her and her family. That wasn’t the first case of that type I had dealt with, but I was about to relocate to a city I did not know, away from my family and friends and could never have explained to her how much her words meant to me. Her gratitude has always stayed with me.”
And following on from that, what’s the biggest sacrifice Yanthé has to make to do her job? When abusive partners or children are involved, it must mean the 9-5 working day is a distant dream: “There are definitely times when this job requires long hours. If a client calls me at 5pm and needs an urgent application to be made at court first thing the next morning, for example to obtain the return of their child to their care or to prevent an abusive partner entering their home, then I will need to work until the documents are drafted and the application is ready to go. E-mails arrive on my mobile throughout the weekend and often I need to respond before the office re-opens, perhaps a client experienced some difficulties at the handover of a child for contact and needs to know how best to tackle it. The biggest reward is definitely knowing that a family you’ve worked with have come out of their case in a better position and with their children affected as little as possible.”
What does it take, to become a successful lawyer? What does Yanthé have that makes her good and what she does, and what does she wish she did better?
“Different areas of law require different attributes for lawyers. Commercial law, or Mergers and Acquisitions for example, can be highly contentious and require a very different skill set to family law. Family lawyers should be conciliatory, the last option for our cases is a full-on fight; I can always tell when a lawyer I am dealing with on the other side of a case does not specialise in family law. Dealing with clients who are emotional and going through one of the most traumatic times of their life requires a lot of patience, but a firm hand. I need to be able to see all the different aspects of a case and look at each issue from all points of view, often including that of a child, so that my client can be prepared and know how best to approach the case. I certainly wouldn’t say I have every skill a family lawyer needs finely tuned; no matter how patient you are aspects of some cases can be very trying(!), but I do draw on my own personal experience of family breakdown to consider how best to handle a case and I find that to be helpful.”
And finally, growing up, was it “be a lawyer, do or die”? Or was there a Plan B? “Growing up my only passion was dance, my poor Dad spent an uncountable number of hours waiting in village hall car parks for me to take classes or attend rehearsals. I worked seriously towards heading off to professional dance college until my mid to late teens, when a foot injury (and curves!) meant I had to face that was never going to happen for me. I don’t have any Plan B and that is a downside to not having a full degree. Should I ever decide I’d like to move away from practising family law my options would certainly be more limited than if I had made it to university. If I had gone to University I had planned to study Politics and Economics.”
Thank you so much Yanthé. I genuinely found this one of the most fascinating JFTG’s we’ve had yet and I hope it gave you the chance to have your side heard.
Readers, do any of you want to get involved and be interviewed for this series, and tell our readers more about what you do and why you do it? Email us and we’ll make it happen!