Marilyn Stowe is know as one of the toughest divorce lawyers in the country. But she has had a difficult year. Catherine Scott meets her.
It has been a turbulent year so far for top family lawyer Marilyn Stowe. Dubbed “the barracuda” for the aggressive way she acts in divorce proceedings, she admits to having mellowed.
In fact when I meet her at her Harrogate Chambers she could not be more welcoming and down to earth – more pussycat than barracuda, although I still wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her in court. Harrogate is one of five Stowe Family Law chambers, with others in Manchester, Cheshire and London’s Gray’s Inn, making it the biggest family law firm in the UK.
She has the reputation as being the most sought-after divorce lawyer in the country, is resident lawyer on ITV’s This Morning and has just published her third book, a not-for-profit guide, Divorce and Splitting up. Stowe is a divorce lawyer with a conscience and although it’s been a good year career-wise, 2013 has been an emotional year for her. “In January I lost both my parents within 12 days of each other,” she says, clearly still distraught by their deaths. “I was very close to my parents; the whole family is very close.”
Her mother had suffered from diabetes for three years and as a result had numerous strokes. “It was awful to watch. My father was her carer, but he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October last year. The three months until he died was the worst period of my life. He was the tree trunk of the family. He died the day before my mother’s 80th birthday and she died 12 days after him.”
For a woman used to battling for her often famous clients in messy divorce settlements, their deaths hit her hard. “Dealing with bereavement has been very difficult,” she admits. It was her parents idea that she become a lawyer. “I found a letter when I was sorting through my parents’ things written when I was about six or seven. I wrote: ‘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.’ It was what they wanted for me and it was at a time when women didn’t go into law,” says the 55-year-old.
Her parents sacrificed a lot, she says, to send her to Leeds Girls High School, from where she went on to Leeds University to study law. “I love the law” – that frankness again. “I like using the law, I like the academic challenge. I am successful because I am good at what I do.”
It is this love of the law and belief in justice which inspired her to volunteer her services in defence of Sally Clark, the mother convicted of murder following the death of her second baby. “I read an article about the case and I just didn’t believe that she had done it.” Stowe wrote to Sally Clark’s husband and her offer was accepted. She then set off doing what she loves, trawling through notes and records and forcing documents to be handed over until she found what she was looking for, a missing report which proved that Clark’s second child suffered a form of meningitis. The murder conviction was quashed and Clark released.
“I never met her,” says Stowe. “But she wrote me a lovely letter thanking me. I was very shocked by her death. I can’t imagine what she went through in prison.”
However, Stowe has slightly deviated from her father’s vision by deciding to become a solicitor. “I did try my hand at being a barrister but it wasn’t for me. They were so snooty,” she says with a broad smile. Instead, she did some work experience with her uncle, who was a solicitor and became interested in commercial law.
When her son Ben was born she realised she couldn’t continue in commercial law and juggle family life. By now she had started her law firm in a converted cobbler’s shop in Halton, Leeds and family law seemed the obvious choice.
“There was an increase in the divorce rate and I realised that there were people who needed my help.” She is all too well aware of the stereotype of the divorce lawyer who stretches out a case in order to increase their fee and preys on vulnerable people.
“There are people like that out there, but they won’t last long. You have to be good at what you do to succeed in law and my results speak for themselves. You’d soon get found out and then no one would use you.”
Stowe is someone who likes to be in control, so when she was attacked and robbed outside her Leeds offices it had a profound affect on her. “I was getting into my car and three men wearing balaclavas jumped me. They had been waiting for me.” Although she handed over her handbag and jewellery one of the men shouted ‘let’s kick her head in.’ “It was then I realised that I was in real trouble and thought they were going to kill me.”
Luckily the men, who have never been caught, had second thoughts. But Marilyn was left understandably shaken. “It took me sometime to get over it and I still worry when I hear someone coming up behind me. But it was the fact I was powerless to do anything about it which really affected me. But I didn’t even take a day off work. There was no way I was going to let them win.”
She decided to move her practise to Harrogate. But she has lost none of her tenacity.
“People didn’t doubt me because I was a woman, they doubted me because I was from the provinces. They felt that any lawyer who was any good would be in London, not the North of England. So I did feel I had to prove myself and I was very aggressive and very ‘LA Law’. But experience teaches you a lot. I’m more measured now but much of that is down to the way the law has changed. It is a lot more about mediation and settlement, although that’s not so much the case in London. I’m a person who needs to keep proving themselves; that’s why I do what I do.”
Does she therefore feel she has sold out by opening a chambers in London? “Not at all,” she says. “I am and always will be Leeds at heart, but you have to have an office in London to be recognised it’s as simple as that. To be a top player you need to be there.”
She also had another motive for opening a branch in London. “My son has recently graduated from university after studying law and is now working for a firm in London and so I wanted somewhere near to him. I’m not stalking him though.”
She now divides her time between homes in Leeds and London and says being in the capital also helps with the television work, which also came her way by accident.
“I was approached by the editor of the programme who was also from Yorkshire and asked if I’d go for an interview. I didn’t think I’d fit the bill. I thought they’d want someone younger, but it turned out they wanted someone more mature with experience.”
Stowe may be 55 but doesn’t look it. She is trim and admits to being a fitness fanatic, with a particular love of running. Her father was also a marathon runner and inspired his daughter to take up the sport. “He ran over 50 marathons and I took it up to copy him.”
She found running the perfect antidote to her stressful job but after two knee replacements in 2008, she had to switch to speed walking and spinning. “Speed walking saved my sanity when my parents were ill. It was my way of coping with what was happening to my family.”
She decided to take part in the Jane Tomlinson 10k in Leeds last month to raise money for Pancreatic Cancer UK. “It meant so much. The last race I had run was the Leeds half marathon with my dad. He followed me round and he was well into his 70s.”
It is because of her parents, and the plans to end Legal Aid, that she wrote and published her latest book Divorce and Splitting up: Advice from a Top Divorce Lawyer. The book, dedicated to her beloved parents, also has all the profits going to the Children’s Society. “I have a popular blog and questions kept cropping up about the changes and it became clear that people just don’t have a clue about the law. So I set about writing the book which is meant to be read in conjunction with the blog, just to help people.
“I was writing the book when my parents were ill. I wanted to write something to dedicate to them that was altruistic because they were. I wanted them to be very proud. I’m pleased to say they saw it.”