International Women’s Day is held to celebrate women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements throughout history and across nations and is also known as the United Nations (UN) Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.
In celebration of International Women’s Day / United Nations Day for Women’s Rights we spoke with two of our distinguished lawyers, Gina Fairfax and Eileen Pembridge, to learn more about their early career and experience of working in the legal sector along with the lessons they have learned and achievements they are most proud of.
What was your background prior to becoming a lawyer?
I read Natural Sciences at Newnham then did post graduate Russian and French and my first job was as a scientific translator/interpreter in Russian, French and Spanish for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, then working for various UN bodies in Europe, and also the African and Arab Development Banks.
Tell us about when and why the law became your ambition?
Instead of zooming around the world I wanted to stay in one place and do something useful.
If you had one, who was your ‘female’ or ‘women in law’ role model, and why?
There weren’t any obvious ones in the early 70’s but I have always been very admiring of Helena Kennedy, who is an old friend, and latterly Brenda Hale, who was my contemporary at Cambridge.
What led you to focus on human aspects of the law (Family Law)?
The issue of battered women and lack of help from the police was becoming an issue in the 70’s so I used to act for women who needed to get out from awful domestic situations and hide them in squatted houses, get injunctions etc. and it developed from there after we got the first Domestic Violence law through Parliament. For years we did everything and specialised only later in the 1990’s.
What were your early experiences of training in the legal sector?
Left to own devices, DIY, work it out for yourself, do your own advocacy in every court from magistrates to chancery. My very first case was a habeas corpus (under the 1971 Immigration Act) and went from QBD to House of Lords in 3 months, which was exciting.
What have been your most favourite/important cases?
Sonia Sutcliffe’s libel case against Private Eye when we won huge damages for her.
Another was stopping in 24 hours and with minutes to spare the sale of a house (in the sole name of an Isle of Man company directed by the husband) over the head of a wife who had been threatened so she went to stay with a friend but was warned by a neighbour that the removal vans had emptied the property and he had left the country.
Are the qualities behind your success predominantly female qualities and what are they?
Doing what you say you will do, ie. reliable and proactive, being firm but fair, hardworking, cheerful, and keeping work and leisure separate. The female element is having antennae and being able to multi task.
What inequality and discrimination have you experienced and observed in your career?
Sexual assaults from Principal (later a judge) whilst an articled clerk, also from candidate for President of the Law Society whom I stood against, general patronising attitudes from older counsel’s clerks and older solicitors.
How does the law serve women?
Much better now than it used to. When I started in the law, mothers did not have equal rights with fathers over their children and lacked judicial protection. Women were expected to type (I couldn’t). There were very few women judges. The Law Society HQ in Chancery Lane was ‘Men Only’ and I used to go there with male articled clerks so they would be asked to make me leave and I’d refuse to go, to make a point. Later when I was myself on the Council for 16 years from 1996 (representing London South of the Thames) there was no Women Members’ WC, so I insisted on using the Gents’ room until they built one, then foreign women lawyers came to have their picture taken outside it.
How do you make being a mother and lawyer work, balancing work and family?
It is always a balancing act and requires lots of forward planning and living near to school for plays, concerts etc. As I was an older mother and had my daughters at age 43 and 53, I could afford to have a live-in nanny but was (nearly) always home by 6pm to be with them and we mainly spent weekends in the country (as I still do) in rural pursuits and with lots of their friends.
How would you describe your career so far overall and what are you most proud of?
Building Fisher Meredith from 2 of us who set it up in 1975 to about 120 at one point, largely through doing public service work, and growing very good reputation for service, probity, human rights and high quality work at modest prices.
What advice would you give your colleagues who are just starting out in their legal careers?
Choose a good firm and make the most of every seat and experience. Join pressure groups and get involved in helping the less fortunate.
Eileen is now a Consultant and Senior Solicitor at Bishop & Sewell working in our Family & Divorce team. You can view her profile here …