FM Family Law invited me to meet the team on their Bi-annual Company Day, to see what really makes them tick. What I found was a highly energized group of women, dedicated to supporting their clients and their families, but moreover, 6 women with a wealth of life experience and a diverse set of skills, far more deeply reaching their professional accomplishments.
All of the lawyers told me it was the personal aspect of Family Law that really drew them to the profession. ‘It doesn’t pay as well as other areas of law typically yet it is the most challenging. You deal with people in crisis. Not contracts or buildings.’
It’s this challenging yet ultimately rewarding aspect which captured the imaginations of FM Family’s lawyers – from Karen, practicing for 34 years since answering an advert for a trainee legal executive aged just 18 – to Sue, who began to advocate for the needs of students during her law degree as Vice President of Education and Representation at the Student Union. There’s an emotional connection to cases, Karen explains, and all the associated quirks of dealing with real people. Sue nods in agreement. Early experiences using her problem solving skills and her nurturing side stood her in good stead for a future in Family Law.
Nevertheless, ‘you have to be resilient’ says Fiona. Dealing with real people, the most challenging thing can be to balance so many competing aspects of various aspects of the law (not just family law) with the complexities of human behaviors. You also have to be ‘pretty tough and robust as well as kind, patient, available and responsive’
Fiona stepped away from her role as head of the Family Law team at a large Cambridge law firm to set up her own firm in 2011. Christina was on the opposing side in court in those days, but the connection when they worked against each other led to Christina being the first to join Fiona at FM Family Law in 2014. I get a sense that this partnership is built upon an understanding of balance: professionally accomplished women with families, who were uniquely able to empathise with the needs of their clients, whilst creating their own family-focused working environment.
Certainly their own families influenced their career progressions. Christina, determined to build a career to support her young family, enrolled at ARU and has been Cambridge based from the start. Starting her own firm certainly gave Fiona the flexibility she needed to work around family commitments, too – an ethos shared by FM Family Law’s employees. ‘It’s different from anywhere I’ve worked before’ says Kate, Cambridge Office Manager, ‘Fiona recognizes that juggling family life can be hard’. Their kids went to the same village school, which is how they met. Again, a personal connection that led to Fiona asking Kate to join the firm when Kate’s 25 year tenure at a national bank ended. Whilst keeping the office impeccably organised, Kate still manages to make it home to spend time with her children – who are now well into their teens.
In her time away from the office, Kate and her husband go for Sunday morning runs along the Cambridge riverside stopping at some favorite local cafes to re-fuel: No. 30, Stir or Fitzbillies for coffee and a sticky Chelsea bun.
Jenny is a runner too – with a fiercely competitive streak and a history of some rather stellar half marathon finishing times. Having studied Interior Design, Jenny started her own business ‘Little Bird Interiors’ which she now enjoys as a past time only for very special gifting occasions. Karen takes walking trips in the Highlands with her Collie dog, her Sprocker, and partner of 19 years.
In their desire to help people in the hugely emotive field of Family Law, taking a step back is of the utmost importance. As Karen explains, a successful family lawyer must remain calm. They must listen carefully, and ultimately recognize that they themselves are not at the centre of the apex – it’s the client who is the priority. Meeting FM Family Law I’ve come to understand the challenge of being a good family lawyer, a balancing act of competing interests and measured judgments, grounded upon many years of experience. They work daily with families in crisis:
‘a wife heartbroken after 27 years of marriage, a husband desperate to reconcile, a spouse desperate to retain their lifetime built-up pension, as well as the interests of the immediate family supporting those clients.’
Whilst on the subject of the balancing act, Fiona tells me her early career as a waitress stood her in good stead. Embarking on her gap year during the 1980s’ recession before law school, Fiona easily embraced the hospitality industry – as well as the tips! – that came with high-end service. Working at Pizza Hut and then Adlards Restaurant in Norfolk (now Roger Hickman’s), Fiona’s love of food and restaurants was established and it certainly continues to this day. As a career, hospitality is all about people, and how to make them happy. What the restaurant industry also taught Fiona was how to support real people and their competing demands, whilst remaining commercial and cost effective. There’s a parallel between helping people in a busy restaurant, constantly prioritizing customers with different wishes and demands at different times, with helping divorcing clients.
‘You have to have ten pairs of eyes, be available, constantly reprioritizing and never drop the ball’
The FM Family law team were heading out that very evening to celebrate the team’s achievements: cocktails followed by dinner in Cambridge at Parker’s Tavern and Varsity Restaurant. Before they rounded-up proceedings, they told me about the importance of stepping away from work to focus on life. It can be an intense and all-encompassing career, but as Sue tells me, ‘my experiences before entering law truly enriched me as a person’ and, she adds, that her year out made her a better lawyer. After another year of advising supporting, mediating and resolving, the FM Family Law team head off to dinner together. Before Law School it was the acclaimed US TV show Ally McBeal that first inspired Sue: the vision of a successful day’s work rewarded in a smart Manhattan bar. It shaped up to be a far different – and more rewarding – career than she had first envisaged in the early days of Law School. But tonight at Parker’s Tavern, cocktail in hand, each of the FM Family Law team can reflect on their own achievements, safe in the knowledge that they have struck an excellent balance. But there is always more work to do. And on Monday they will be back at their desks in Cambridge & Norwich, relishing the challenges of their caseloads once again.