Marilyn Stowe tells how her first office in an old cobbler’s shop on a crime-ridden estate took shape
“You can open your office here and do very well,” said my lawyer husband of a few weeks, smiling enthusiastically. We were parked in a side street, looking at an empty dismal-looking cobbler’s shop on a secondary parade in a rundown part of East Leeds. It bore a forlorn ‘For Sale’ sign. “Really?” I asked. Earlier, he had mentioned, rather apologetically, that I couldn’t continue working in his smart purpose-built offices which were conveniently situated opposite the newly-built court building. He then suggested a drive out of Leeds centre.
Our ‘working together’ arrangement lasted about three weeks after our wedding. But that included the honeymoon, so it was about only a week in total. It transpired that everyone else in the office – where my husband was senior partner – felt I was difficult to work with; a bit too ‘full on’. So here I was, whisked away and being talked into opening an office around the corner from a crime-ridden housing estate. He’d already obtained the keys to the cobbler’s shop – one of his conveyancers had discovered it on an earlier recce. It transpired they all agreed it was the perfect place for an office. “You can send the criminal work down to me”, said my husband enthusiastically as we walked in. It was dark and depressing.
Old shoe lasts were still in the shop, a grungy old counter top visible. “You like doing family law and wills and there’s plenty of conveyancing up the road,” he continued. Cheerfully ignoring our surroundings, he announced: “It’s perfect.” I was 27 years old, newly qualified, newly married and faced with a proposal I apparently couldn’t refuse. Love is blind. “Why not?” I conceded. Before I could change my mind, he had offered £27,000 for the shop with an upstairs flat which he decided we could rent out; and arranged a second mortgage on our home to cover it. The bank manager appeared sceptical. My husband reassured him and all doubts were briskly dismissed. “She’s going to be brilliant”, he said to the bank manager. “We just need to get her settled in. Quickly.” His offer was accepted and I was encouraged to get to know the area.
My husband arranged the refurbishment. He had the office painted the brightest shade of pillar box red so it could be seen by passers-by on buses and cars on their way in and out of Leeds. His criminal clients on the estate assured him they wouldn’t target my shop (the rest of the parade was still fair game). It was reassuring for me and it was exactly how it turned out. With creative planning, the shop’s tiny interior seemed magically to grow. The joiner – a client of my husband’s – created a reception desk at the entrance and formed two offices with some basic partitioning.
But there was room only for me and one client in either office. To the back, there was a kitchenette and a cloakroom. Three electric radiators were installed. It was the early 80s so faxes hadn’t even been invented.
Our tech consisted of a conventional typewriter for my solitary secretary-cum-receptionist, a dictating machine for me, a transcriber for the secretary – and a connecting telephone between the back office and reception which was six feet away.
We stacked the stationery and forms next to a photocopier in the other office. And so I opened for business. I imagined I was going to be like the women lawyers on LA Law. I loved their swagger, their noholds-barred style litigation. I decided to dress like them with their big hair and large shoulder pads. Then I had to persuade potential clients to instruct a 27-year-old woman in a tiny office who was daring to compete in a man’s world.
It didn’t stop me.
Marilyn Stowe is the retired founder of Stowe Family Law