25 Years in Family Law

Charlotte Bradley, head of the Family team at Kingsley Napley, writes for Women in Family Law about her reflections on the past 25 years as a family lawyer.

This month marks 25 years since I qualified as a family lawyer which, as a criminal colleague kindly remarked, “is less than some people get for murder”. In the current turbulent time with the pandemic, which has prompted a period of reflection for many of us, the anniversary has made me think about the seismic (and the not so fast) changes for family lawyers over the last quarter of a century and how my personal experiences throughout this time have run in tandem.

The early days

When I first qualified into family law, we were in a very different era.  I was fortunate to qualify into a leading divorce team in London’s West End. The training I received was fantastic although attitudes were very different from today. My interview experience was a world away from the full day’s assessment that our prospective trainees now go through. Instead, I was invited to a lunchtime drinks reception attended by all the hopeful candidates with a ten-minute interview squeezed in whilst carefully balancing a glass of wine in one hand and a half-chewed chicken leg in the other.

I trained at a good firm and later joined an even better firm two years post-qualification, but it is fair to say that etiquette and attitudes in the workplace were nothing like the #MeToo era of today. In the first two weeks of my training contract, I remember my then forward-thinking (male) principal tried to encourage us to be a little more self-sufficient from our secretaries and so suggested that we should all learn how to sew affidavits (in the days when we used to do that). One of the male solicitors at the firm said that surely I (rather than the other male members of the team) should know how to do that particular task and he later commented too that he didn’t approve of women wearing trousers in the office, then still unusual. These types of comments remained unchallenged at the time.

Qualifying into family law

When I qualified as a family lawyer, I was single and in my 20s. I thrived on the buzz of coming into the West End, whatever hour of the day, to meet with clients and go to court. I also enjoyed meeting friends and making new ones, being carefree and speed dating after work. I saw myself as Ally McBeal or Cynthia, the lawyer in Sex and the City. Others have described me more as the Bridget Jones type, not helped by the various situations I got myself into over the years. There was the time I was late for a meeting after my coat got jammed in underground doors forcing me to travel six further stops, or the time my king-size mattress was delivered to the office instead of home, causing a fire risk.

Looking back, I had a brilliant training, much of it learned by observing how the partners worked, on the phone, in meetings and in court with clients and other solicitors, taking the good points (and ignoring the bad).  In contrast, I’m acutely aware that in the current pandemic, it must be so difficult for our trainees and junior associates, working without the face to face support of those more senior to them or listening to that ‘kitchen chat’ where you learn so much, while at the same time getting the buzz and energy from meeting contemporaries and building relationships for the future at networking events. While we’re all managing to work effectively remotely, and my firm has taken active steps to look after employees’ well-being during the pandemic,  I, like many, am suffering from ‘zoom fatigue’ and miss the camaraderie of my colleagues and friends,  and it must be even harder for those at the start of their careers.

When I qualified into family law, what I loved best was the first client meeting. That has never changed.  I am sure that all family lawyers are inherently intrigued about other people’s lives and my favourite part of the job is meeting and engaging with my client so that I can understand their objectives, empathise with them and help them navigate the next part of their journey. What I have learnt, however, is that there are always two sides to the story – everyone has their very own history of what has happened and it can sometimes feel as though the couple have led a parallel universe (and that is not even taking into account the many secret families I have come across during my career).

Technology and the accelerating pace of communication

As in all areas of life, technology has had a huge impact on the way in which family lawyers practise, with communications now being concentrated into minutes and hours rather than days, weeks and months. Resolving a financial settlement could previously take many months if not years, with the disclosure process being dragged out as the current strictly timetabled procedure of financial proceedings (including Forms E) was piloted just after I qualified.

Lawyers have traditionally been the worst culprits of reliance on paper (ruining a few rainforests in the process) and this was even worse before the advent of emails.  I remember letters (and then faxes) going backwards and forwards between solicitors, with communications taking many days, or sometimes weeks, which just extended the process and inevitably costs for clients. We had already come a long way over the last decade with regards to technology speeding up processes, but the current COVID-19 pandemic has for all its challenges been a game changer in how lawyers work – with Zoom meetings, remote hearings, paperwork converted to ‘e-bundles’  for the court  etc. all being done online. As much as the pandemic is having devastating effects on so many aspects of society, the family justice system and all those who work within it have adjusted well and to an extent that simply wouldn’t have been possible 25 years ago. Without doubt, the family justice system would have ground to a halt had this happened in 1995.

Cultural shifts and changes in attitudes

The 24/7 and online culture in which we now live, has undoubtedly had an impact on people’s behaviour, and the kind of cases and the clients we help now. Over the years, I have seen an exponential increase in cases where at least one of the couple has mental health issues, suffers from addiction or personality disorders and/or where there has been domestic abuse, as well as coercive and controlling behaviour. Of course it is possible that, like many,  I was unconsciously unaware of such issues, but, these days it is not uncommon for one or other of the couple to have mental health issues and one characteristic of the 21st century is that clients raise concerns about their spouse being a narcissist. Technology has of course had a bearing on the kind of behaviour that clients complain of and, while it may be easier to conduct an affair in today’s digital world, it is also far easier to be found out!

On a more encouraging note, I find that over the last few years more of my clients are sensibly looking for more amicable and non-court ways to resolve family issues, be this via mediation, collaborative law, private hearings or arbitration, most of which options were not available 25 years ago. While we are certainly not there yet in making sure that the court is only used by those who really need it, at least we now have a range of non-court options.  And at long last, we are going to have “no fault divorce” introduced in 2021 with the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act coming into force. Looking back to 1995 when I first entered family law, there was a bill to bring in no fault divorce at the time, but with many opponents back then saying that no fault divorce was the death knell for marriage, ultimately it was abandoned. So, while it’s been a long time coming, I am pleased that this will now finally become a reality.

Lessons learnt as a family lawyer, a divorcee and a co-parent

What I have learnt in my 25 years as a family lawyer has been affected by dealing with a whole range of client issues over many years, as a solicitor, but also through my personal experience with life’s challenges of marriage, having children, relationship breakdown and divorce.

I have often been asked whether getting married, having my twins (now aged 11) and going through divorce affected the way I have practised and if it has helped me when I was giving divorce and children advice. What has had the biggest effect on my practice is having gone through the pain of separation and divorce myself. Being from a family with parents who are still happily married after 62 years, when I got married, like most of my clients, I didn’t ever think I would later divorce. However, having personally gone through the same stages of grief that my clients do, including those feelings of failure when your children are growing up with two separated parents, I do feel a much better family lawyer.  I understand more clearly why clients choose to ignore certain things or become sensitive about particular issues which may seem insignificant to others (my personal one was when my ex’s former girlfriend gave my daughter a new hairstyle; I was apoplectic!). It has also made me braver about giving clients frank advice which they may not like to hear but which I know is important for their family in the long run.

What I repeatedly remind clients is that, save in exceptional circumstances (for example where there is extreme domestic abuse), whatever role the other parent performs, whether they enjoy a 50/50 arrangement or a more limited 95/5 split of time, that 50% or 5% is vitally important for the child. My other mantra is that any on-going conflict between the parents will have the biggest impact on the child, rather than the act of separation or divorce in itself.  I was perhaps fortunate in that my twins were only two when my ex-husband and I separated and while you never completely get over the guilt of your children growing up with two separated parents, and we live 200 miles apart, I have learnt that it pays off to work hard at developing a good relationship and we now regularly spend time together as a family, going out for lunch and celebrating birthdays together, which can make all the difference for the happiness of our children.

A long way but still a way to go

Fortunately, in recent years a greater focus has been placed on the language of co-parenting, which does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split but that both parents are involved in their child’s development. I actually prefer the concept of co-operative parenting which is the term used by the Family Solutions Group (a multi-disciplinary sub-committee of Cobb J’s Private Law Working Party, of which I am a member, whose report  focusing on the needs of the child following parental separation is due to be published very shortly.) We still have a way to go but we are a world away from the language of custody that we had before.  In my view, the voice of the child doesn’t yet carry enough weight and unfortunately, this is also being coloured by two important issues of domestic abuse and parental alienation, which have generated a polarised debate.

With respect to other family law developments, it is of course a positive change that fault based divorce will be abolished by 2021, but it is disappointing that, despite calls for reform, we are no further forward with a cohabitation reform, at least in England and Wales.

We may have seen some positive changes over recent years and the introduction of new online practices in the last seven months that we wouldn’t have dreamed possible five (let alone 25) years ago – but I expect we will see many other positive changes and also challenges still ahead of us, including the changes to international family law with Brexit looming.

Having reflected on my practice as a family lawyer since 1995, one thing which hasn’t changed is witnessing the human impact of family breakdowns but also experiencing the resilience and ability for people to recover and move on with the right help and support around them – and I will continue to enjoy being part of that journey.