Woman in a man's world
Back in the day when legal aid paid quickly, a female estate agent helped Marilyn Stowe get her firm off the ground
In 1982, we borrowed £27,000 to buy and convert a disused cobbler’s shop in East Leeds and turned it into my new office.
I was the only woman customer on the bank manager’s books. Without fail, he would call in to see me every Friday, checking on new clients, work in progress, bills sent and money outstanding. I always kept myself up- beat for his visits although I resented them. He didn’t visit my husband’s office with such regularity.
“What work can you do?” he asked. “Anything,” I replied through gritted teeth. In the days when specialism was rare, it was feasible. But where were the clients to come from? Solicitors weren’t allowed to advertise.
My husband was always upbeat. “Visit every estate agent in the area,” he suggested. “Take them out for lunch. Get them to recommend you to their clients. Then when they see how good you are, you will be doing their conveyancing, divorces, wills and probates. Make sure you take lots of business cards with you.”
I loathed conveyancing but it made commercial sense. I phoned an estate agent whose name I noted from a sale board, and nervously offered to take him out to lunch. He was aware of my office and how I was trying to get it going.
He swaggered out to my little black Peugeot on the appointed date and I drove to a restaurant of his choice. I had plenty of business cards in my bag. He ordered the lobster and a good wine. I paid the astronomical bill – for which he failed to thank me – drove him back to his office, and I never heard from him again. My cards were untouched.
But there was another estate agent in the area who caught my eye. She was a shrewd woman in her fifties, another business woman in a man’s world, and work was busy. Thanks to her going out of her way to help me, my office soon started to take off. Even if conveyancing wasn’t my cup of tea.
Pensioners used to turn up without an appointment to make their wills or to ask me to handle a probate. There were consumer cases too. I turned no one away – always aware the bank manager was lurking in the background.
There was legal aid work from the housing estate down the road. Most of it came from women who were being beaten up by their partners. In one day, I could get a client signed up, draft the papers, drive to court and have someone ordered to leave his home.
Usually, he would be in blissful ignorance until I’d find him in a pub, serve the injunction papers on him – and scarper. In those days, legal aid paid quickly too and, after a few months, the bank manager reduced his weekly visits.
I was soon working flat out. But many times I found my secretary cum receptionist, having been left to hold the fort, had walked out due to the pressure of work. I’d come into the office after lunch to find it deserted. A soothing call from my husband with his charming voice worked wonders. Back she would come until I found a replacement.
I paid off all the bank borrowings within 18 months and changed banks. I took on a solicitor to handle the hated conveyancing. We were squashed into two tiny offices; and the photocopier was moved from his office to the cloakroom doorway.
Now we needed two secretaries to share reception duties, working alongside two cupboards full of forms and stationery. I knew this couldn’t continue and I should expand into the empty flat above. But could I ever fill it?
It was a tantalising prospect and, at almost thirty years old, I really thought I’d made it. In fact, my real career hadn’t yet begun.
Marilyn Stowe is the retired founder of Stowe Family Law